Released by Epyx in the USA as "Death Sword".
Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Andrew Fitter in 1987; for the ZX Spectrum by Shaun Griffiths in 1987; for the Atari ST by Gary Thomson of Seer Computer Systems in 1988; for the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro by Peter Scott of Superior Software in 1988; for the Commodore Amiga by Richard Leinfellner in 1988; for the Apple ][ and IBM-PC compatibles by Designer Software in 1988.
Unofficial conversions for the Commodore Plus/4 by Muffbusters and SF in 1990: Muffbusters version programming, graphics and sounds by Mucsi, with title screen by Jeva. SF version by Ferenc S.
Conversion for the Atari 8-bits released by Laboratorium Komputerowe Avalon (L.K. Avalon) in 1993: Programming by Piotr Pazdzierkiewicz, Graphics by Piotr Podsiadlo, Music by Jakub Husak.
INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS
I have been meaning to do a comparison of Palace Software's Barbarian for a long time now, but due to various reasons and excuses that I have allowed myself to make, there just hasn't been a moment so far that felt right for this one. Make of it what you will, but the time is now. On April Fools' Day 2015, I had finally begun to work on this one, so you can imagine it's one of those super long ones again, so prepare yourself with plenty of coffee. Making a comparison of Barbarian was never a suggestion, but I know many of my friends enjoyed this game back in the day, and long after that time, so this one goes for all those friends that I got around to playing Barbarian with.
The game was most likely born out of a need for a proper swordfighting game, which would somehow fulfill every kid's fantasies of being Conan, as cool as Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to make him in 1982. Datasoft's earlier Conan game didn't really fit the bill, as it was just the next step in the series of platform-adventures in the vein of Bruce Lee, which would later on be followed by Zorro and The Goonies. The only competition Palace's Barbarian had at any length was Gremlin's Samurai Trilogy, at least from what I remember, and both games were released at the same time. While Barbarian had less variety to offer, it did the one thing it was made for infinitely better than what Gremlin were able to produce for their clumsy counterpart. No wonder then, why Barbarian was so well received in July 1987. But for all its polish in gameplay, Barbarian offered something more: controversial cover art and pixelated gore. Shocking!
Epyx got the distribution rights for the North American market, and got Designer Software to do the conversion. At some point, it was decided that the game needed a different name - apparently so that it wouldn't get mixed up with Psygnosis' own Barbarian game, which was released at the same time as the one by Palace Software. Although "Death Sword" sounds both like a bad 1980's fantasy metal group and an even worse barbarian-themed sword fighting B-movie, at least it was never really thought of as anything else than what it is. Palace themselves only gave the game its subtitle to avoid the mix-up. The hilarity with bad names ensued with both Barbarian games getting their own sequels, but that's something we don't need to worry about in this blog entry.
On April Fools' day 2015, the game's ratings all over our favourite websites were as follows: at Lemon64, 8.2 from 275 votes (ranked #69 in the Top list); at LemonAmiga, 7.49 from 121 votes; at World of Spectrum, 8.17 from 134 votes; at Plus/4 World, the MB version has 8.1 from 11 votes and the SF version has 8.2 from 10 votes; at CPC Game Reviews, a 9 out of 10; at CPC-POWER, 17.61 out of 20.00; at Atarimania, the 8-bit version has a score of 6.9 from 17 votes, while the 16-bit version has 7.3 from 7 votes; and the DOS version at Abandonia has two scores - the editor has given it a 3.0 out of 5, and 2449 readers have rated it 2.7. The rest of the scores had to be taken from MobyGames: the Acorn versions have a score of 4.5 from 2 votes and the Apple ][ version has 3.5 from 6 votes. I expect this to be an interesting comparison, with most of the versions being on a similar level.
DESCRIPTION & REVIEW
Barbarian always struck me as an oddity in a way. Not only does it offer very detailed sword fighting, but it does it so well that the plot in the background is rendered meaningless. The idea is basically to fight your way through a number of opponents to eventually save your savage princess from the claws of the evil whatchamacallit. Emperor something or other, I suppose. I will dig this up from the instruction manual for later use. But the meat of the game is found in the two-player versus mode, which will ultimately be the true test of skill here.
The game repeats the same scenario from beginning to end: you are faced against another barbarian, who shall fight you to the death. Your only weapons are your sword, your feet and your head, all of which are controlled with your joystick or keyboard, depending on the version of course. Each level is more difficult than the previous, and the scene of fight will change from one fight to the next, although there really are only a few backdrops in the game. The focus in the game has been put into getting the movements as perfect as possible. There are 8 attack moves, 4 defense moves and 4 movement moves which you can perform with your barbarian, and all of which you must master in order to complete the game.
At best, it's enormously good fun with a group of friends alternating on the controllers, but playing against the computer gives you good practice as well. In the one-player mode, though, it gets repetitive and boring due to the basic nature of the game, and the game really makes it clear, that it was developed primarily as a two-player game. Keeping that in mind, I can only recommend it highly, if you have a friend or several to spend an afternoon around. Cutting each other's heads off will never be as fun as it is here.
For a change, we have another fairly interesting lot to compare in the Loading section. As usual, I shall be leaving out all the disk versions, but worry not - there are plenty enough versions to compare for the machines that cassettes can be found. In fact, I'm pretty sure this is not even nearly all there is to be found for all machines, but it does give us a fairly good idea of what sorts of loading times are to be expected from the most well-known releases.
C64, Palace: SIDE A - 6 min 19 sec, SIDE B - 6 min 17 sec, TOTAL - 12 min 36 sec
C64, Ocean: SIDE A - 6 min 3 sec, SIDE B - 6 min 8 sec, TOTAL - 12 min 11 sec
SPE, Palace: SIDE A - 5 min 9 sec, SIDE B - 5 min 11 sec, TOTAL - 10 min 20 sec
SPE, Erbe: SIDE A - 5 min 47 sec, SIDE B - 5 min 38 sec, TOTAL - 11 min 25 sec
SPE, Kixx: SIDE A - 5 min 38 sec, SIDE B - 5 min 26 sec, TOTAL - 11 min 4 sec
CPC, Palace: SIDE A - 8 min 55 sec, SIDE B - 8 min 43 sec, TOTAL - 17 min 38 sec
BBC, Palace: SIDE A - 7 min 40 sec, SIDE B - 7 min 41 sec, TOTAL - 15 min 21 sec
ELE, Superior: TOTAL - 15 min 51 sec
Unfortunately, the loading screens for this game are mostly less interesting than the loading times themselves. The C64 and AMSTRAD versions only have the game logo in the middle of the screen, and a copyright under it. At least the C64 Ocean release has a brilliant loading tune included to help make the boredom less painful, but the Palace version has no such thing. For the SPECTRUM version, the loading screen artist has done at least something better, which is a barbarian posing with his sword resting on his shoulder while two eagles fly in the background. This picture has been placed where the game action screen is during the game, and the snake-pillars and the game logo are where they usually are, to make the transition from loading to the in-game menus look more natural.
|Loading screens. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.|
Bottom row: Acorn Electron + BBC Micro (leftmost picture is an extra loading screen in the Superior re-release).
The ACORN versions have various different loading screens, depending on which release you happen to be loading. If it's a Superior Software re-release, you will get a Superior pre-loading screen loading screen (yes, the repetition is there for a reason), which doesn't look like much. The actual loading screen is probably the best - and only - rendition of the cover art for any system that I have seen, which is almost rather impressive. Then again, this particular screen doesn't stand there for long - once it's finished, the controls screen kicks in, after which you need to load the action part of the game, which has its own loading screen again. Neither of the 16-bit versions feature any sort of loading screens, nor does the DOS version. The APPLE and DOS versions don't really feature much of a loading screen, but at least the title screen in the APPLE version is shown during the loading. But they will be shown later on in the Graphics section. Then of course, there are the unofficial versions, which are not available as proper tape or disk images, so I cannot tell if they were ever actually released commercially. Therefore, I have no idea whether the title screens are actually supposed to be loading screens or are they left in the files as just something extra to waste more memory.
One-on-one swordfighting is what the entire game is all about, and the only way this idea could have been pulled off with any degree of honour was to make it all work like a clockwork, and make the fighting moves look as realistic as possible. Which is exactly what the good people at Palace Software did. For those two or three people out there, who are actually more interested in completing the game than beating up your friend, I will only say that it's the second part of the game that you need to load, unless you're playing on the 16-bits.
A proper digital joystick is what this game was designed for, so it's best played using one. You are given two basic sets of movements: moving around and applying defensive moves happens by moving the joystick without pressing the fire button, and all the offensive moves are applied with the fire button pressed down. It's a fairly easy control system to understand, but very difficult to master. The biggest problem in the game, however, is how to start the game, which is why I decided to give you a full walkthrough of how to start the game on all versions.
ACORN: In the title screen, press F0 to scroll through player options, and press Space to start.
AMIGA: When in demo mode, start a single-player game by pressing F1, and a two-player game by pressing F2. The Amiga version can only be played with joysticks.
AMSTRAD: When the game has loaded, press Return to choose from the options on screen, and press Space Bar to start.
APPLE: When in demo mode, press P to select the number of players, and Enter to start the game. You can play the game on keyboard (not recommended: the keys are UIOJKNM, and left Shift) and/or joystick.
ATARI 8-BIT: Press fire to start. (Where is two player mode?)
ATARI ST: F1 = single-player mode on a joystick, F2 = single-player mode on keyboard, F3 = two-player mode on joysticks, F4 = two-player mode on joystick and keyboard. The cursor keys and Shift keys are used as the keyboard controls.
COMMODORE 64: When in demo mode, press F1 to toggle between one and two player modes, and then press F7 to start.
COMMODORE PLUS/4 (both): Similar to the C64 version, except the F7 function is moved to the HELP button.
DOS: Similar to Apple version.
SPECTRUM: When the game has loaded, you are given a number of options, which you need to make your choice from.
Okay, so perhaps I wasn't entirely truthful with the control system being easy, but now that's been pretty much dealt with as well. In other words, if you don't have one, get yourself a (proper) joystick before you give up on the game entirely. Now, let's take a look at the moves, which are scanned straight from the game manual.
|Scanned from the game manual.|
As most of you old Barbarian-fans and other retrogamers out there must know, "Flying Neck Chop" is the move that makes the game so much fun, but against every expectation, it's not the main thing about the game that caused the most controversy. More about that one later on. If the move is executed successfully, it will cause your opponent's head to fall off, making the executor an instant winner of the round. Following the pixelated fest of blood and gore, a green little monster arrives on the scene to drag the corpse away, as he always does when a round is finished, but when a head has been chopped off, he kicks it out to the right exit, making all this violence even more entertaining than necessary. For this bit of bloody fun, the game was actually banned in Germany, so it did cause something. All the other attacks are easier to get through, but will only take half a point of energy away from the receiver, so you will be often tempted to go for the neck. The rounds are timed, but rarely reach zero, since each contestant can survive only twelve proper hits, so the fights will not last very long. Particularly if decapitation occurs. Playing in single-player mode, the time limit doesn't even exist - the timer is replaced by the skill level of your opponent.
Now, let's get to the actual gameplay differences. The game was originally developed and released for the Commodore 64, so that's what every conversion will be compared to. Mind you, I have never managed to get through the game, and I have never really even cared enough to attempt it. Longplay videos of the game's completion can be found on YouTube, if you care to look for them, which will feature a final fight against Drax - something this comparison will NOT feature, the reason for which you might understand if you know how the final fight goes.
Compared to the C64 version, the game speed and controllability is the same on the AMSTRAD, but the single-player game isn't as gentle in its gradual lift in difficulty. The game's progression is made slower by the slower walk of the little green monster, although he doesn't stop to laugh here when picking up the corpse. Also, all the scenarios have to be loaded in separately, so you have two separate scenarios out of four to complete the game in.
The SPECTRUM version makes you deliver 13 hits to win a round instead of twelve, and the energy meter doesn't really give all that much of information as to how the damage is taken. The difficulty level has been rebalanced to be slightly more difficult from the start, but not too bad. Still, it's clearly more difficult to get the Flying Neck Chop through. When knocking opponent down, he goes slightly further away than in the original, forcing you to move closer to the opponent again to be able to hit him, which takes time. But it's slightly faster to play than the original, and not only because it has a better framerate.
On the ACORN computers, the framerate is even higher than in any other 8-bit version, but the animations have less frames, making it often difficult to keep track of your man's actions as well as your opponent's. Also, some of the attacks don't always result in a similar reaction that happens in all the other versions, mostly resulting in an even quicker overall gameplay experience. But I wouldn't call it a very comfortable conversion.
At the other end, the APPLE version is painfully slow. The animations are spot on, but the game plays about 1/3 slower than the original, and makes the overall experience feel laggy - although it very well might be that, but I can't confirm it since I don't have an Apple computer to confirm this on. Joystick control is recommended over the keyboards, because you can use the fire button on the joystick like it's supposed to be used. With the keyboard controls, you toggle the function of the fire button on and off with Space bar.
In the DOS version, the game speed is between the C64 original and the Apple version. The difficulty level is closer to the original than in any other version, but the game suffers from the same keyboard inconveniences as the Apple version, so again, a joystick is very much recommended. It might come as a bit of a surprise, but I'd say the DOS version is one of the best versions to play - provided that you have a joystick.
Last from the official versions, the 16-bits. Both the AMIGA and ATARI ST play clearly a bit faster than the original, but not in the same way as the Acorn version - happily, they're close enough to the original. The animations have more frames and the game has a better framerate, but it's the overall higher difficulty level, which makes the game feel like a hard-core version in single-player mode. Kind of like the Spectrum version, but even harder. There are also a couple of moves here that have problems in hit detection, but you would have to be really unlucky to come across them. Recommended to be played only in two-player mode.
There are two distinctly different unofficial conversions on the PLUS/4, as well as a third release based on the second version by SF, but I decided to take a look at only the two base versions. Muffbusters' version offers only a single-player mode, and crashes after defeating the enemy on level 7. It also only features one screen to play in, so it's a bit boring. At least the animations are quick and fairly well converted from the original, and the game plays very well considering its limitations. The SF version has a two-player mode as an option, and features two alternating screens from the Practice mode to play in, but features no music or sounds. The gameplay is very much the same as in the Muffbusters' version, so it's not too big a deal. You win some and you lose some in both versions.
Finally, we get to the most recent one of the lot: the 8-bit ATARI version. First off, it's much too fast. Although the moves are faithfully enough copied from the original, the high speed and the slightly different animation style makes the game difficult to follow. Also, the game always takes place in one screen, chosen randomly by the game when loading in the actual game, and it doesn't have an ending as such. Also, in case you don't speak Polish, the instructions in the title screen can be a bit difficult to decipher, but there's not too much to it, really.
The conclusion here could well be that the C64 original is the best one of the lot, but it really depends more on your expertise in the game, and your opponents. The 16-bit versions are definitely much more suitable for some good two-player sessions due to their more comfortable framerate, but the single-player game is best played on either the original C64 version or the DOS version. All you hardcore Barbarian gamers out there might still enjoy the Spectrum and Amstrad versions, as they are both very good in their own right - just more difficult than the original. That said, I will have to give the scores from the perspective of a novice Barbarian...
1. COMMODORE 64
2. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
3. COMMODORE PLUS/4 (both)
4. ZX SPECTRUM
5. AMSTRAD CPC
6. COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST
7. APPLE ][
8. ACORN ELECTRON + BBC MICRO
9. ATARI 8-BIT
I'm almost sorry to say that this section will look a bit dull this time, since the majority of Barbarian's graphical focus is in the animations, which I cannot really show here, since I don't have the equipment to do animated gifs, and I don't even know whether Blogger supports them or not. In any case, YouTube has many good videos showing the game in action, so you might as well search for them there. Regardless of all this, there are differences in details and colours and all that stuff to make it a relatively huge undertaking. So let's take a look at everything we can here...
|Title screens and options. Top row: ZX Spectrum (left) and Commodore Amiga (right).|
Middle row: Acorn Electron (left) + BBC Micro (middle) and Atari 8-bit (right).
Bottom row: DOS (left), Apple ][ (middle) and Commodore Plus/4 by Muffbusters (right).
Although the C64 original proves that a title screen isn't actually necessary, it's still nice to have something to look at in addition to the relentless fighting. The AMSTRAD version follows the original in this area as much as it does in the loading screen style.
The 16-bit versions don't have a loading screen either, so the first thing you will see after the game has loaded is the "Hall of Heroes" screen - the only occurence of a high score list in the official versions. I only noticed the unofficial 8-bit ATARI conversion having a high score list, although it only had 3 entries. Speaking of the L.K. Avalon version, you can clearly see from the title screen already that the game will be very much shown in shades of a single colour. The next logical step is to speak of the other unofficial version in this lot - the first PLUS/4 conversion by Muffbusters, which has a complete mess of a picture featuring a badly drawn hero of the game, a completely unfitting title text, "one" included in the title, a small picture of emperor Drax and the Barbarian princess within the picture, and even a text scroller at the bottom border of the screen. It's a nice idea, but badly executed. The other PLUS/4 conversions don't even have a title screen or anything fitting for this bit.
If you take a closer look at the menus in the SPECTRUM version, you can see it's a bit illogical. After the game has loaded in, you have to choose from either viewing the demo, or play a one player game or a two player game. After you have chosen a one player game, as I did in this instance, you are given a choice of controls. After setting the controls, you get back to the first option screen, where the demo option has been changed to "start game", but the other two options remain the same. It just baffles me, how did they think this was any more logical than the way it's done in the original: select the game mode in the demo screen. The instructions for choosing the game mode could have easily been put into the instructions manual, as it was done for the other versions.
For the two ACORN versions, you sort of get two different title screens or whatever you would call them. First, after the first loading screen has loaded in, the loader pauses for a while and you are then given an option for changing the key controls, which are also displayed on the screen. After you're done with the controls, the game loads up the main program, which starts with an actual title screen. The ELECTRON version features less colours than the BBC MICRO version, and there are even some minor detail differences, such as the missing floor under the Barbarian hero's feet on the ELECTRON.
The two Death Sword versions look much like the originals, only with the additional Epyx things thrown in, and a sword placed under the title logo. The DOS version uses the all too familiar 4-colour CGA graphics, but the APPLE version looks surprisingly good. But then, it's just a title screen, right?
There are only two screens in the whole game, that can be found in all 12 machines. Some versions have the order of levels slightly different - the two practice levels are swapped, if not anything else. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the PLUS/4 has two completely different versions, which combined feature only three sceneries from the original. There is yet another version for the PLUS/4 out there, which is based on the SF version, which has more screens, which are unique, so it will not be featured here. So anyway, if you happen to play some of these versions and notice there is a difference in the order of levels, that is because there is.
Although the C64 version puts the machine's colour abilities to fairly good use, it focuses on the character animations more than its backgrounds. If I'm brutally honest, the backgrounds are a bit bland and lacking in detail compared to most of the conversions. The conversions closest to the C64 quality are surprisingly the APPLE and PLUS/4 versions. One little detail that has been left out of all the other conversions apart from the SPECTRUM one, is that the two snakes wrapped around the trees at both ends of the screen are of a different colour. At least all versions have them animated.
Strangely, the SPECTRUM version is the only one that has gone for a monochrome style with the player characters. This allows them to have more characteristics, although the backgrounds have been left a bit extreme on the colouring side to get a good focus on the fighters. But the main point is, the fighters look very good and the animation is slightly quicker than in the original, so it could be considered a move forwards. I have to mention the snakes again, because I just noticed something a bit curious about them. Notice the way they are wrapped around the trees? Well, I know it's not much of a problem for a snake to latch onto a tree however one wants to, but it just looks illogical to suddenly change its direction. Of course, there is a logical reason for this: to avoid colour clash between the snakes and the player characters when they reach the ends of the screen. Oh well. Don't play it if you have OCD.
I would have expected the AMSTRAD version to have been closer to the Spectrum one, but no: it has been modeled after the C64 original, and apart from the snakes on the sides, it looks much better! The basic quality of the graphics is the same, but there are much more colours on the screen, which allows for more detailed backgrounds.
The two ACORN versions share similar graphics for the most part. Only the top portion of the screen with the game title and scores etc. - oh yeah, and the snake heads! - are in different colours. Also, the area with the title logo is a bit squeezed on the ELECTRON due to the machine's lower screen resolution. Of course you will have noticed that the level graphics themselves are a bit different from all the other versions; whereas most versions are played at either dusk or dawn (can't really tell for sure), the Acorn versions are played at night, which allows for some artistic freedom due to the lesser graphic abilities on the Acorn machines.
The APPLE version is surprisingly colourful, considering the other games with Apple versions I have had to review on this blog. The colours and the amount of detail are very close to the original, although there are some minor differences. For instance, the snakes are of the same colour and brown has been replaced with green for the ground colour. But it's still surprisingly good.
At first, the DOS version is difficult to compare to the others because of its very limiting CGA graphics, which only gives 4 colours to use. The character details and animations are similar to the original, but they are mostly white as snow. The background drawings are perhaps more detailed than in the other versions that have an otherwise similar quality, but the lack of colours makes it all look a bit messy and boring.
On the AMIGA and ST, the high score screen is the only bit in the game that is similar enough not to draw any closer attention to, but once you get into the game, the similarities aren't quite as remarkable any longer. The AMIGA version has a more dramatic colouring in the backgrounds, and a bit more effort has been put into detail. Then again, considering that the background graphics are not animated, one would wish to have a reason for this, so in that sense, the ST version looks more natural. A small curious bit of text can be seen at the bottom of the ST version's screen, that says "The battle commences" when you are playing, and "Demonstration" when you aren't. Strangely, the ST version seems to be the only one that doesn't make it clear if you are playing a one-player game or a two-player game.
The only unofficial conversion featuring this particular screen is the PLUS/4 version by SF, which is mostly based on the C64 original. Most likely the first thing you will notice being different is the title logo, which is, at least to my eyes, quite unfitting for the game. For the most part, the background graphics feel a bit sloppy, but adequate. At least the characters and their animations have been brought in from the original well intact, so it's not too bad. I've seen worse official Plus/4 games.
Now that we got that out of the way, I promise the rest of this section will be more compact. I included the unique screen from the ATARI 8-BIT version here, because I gathered there was no reason to give it any more attention than necessary. It offers little else than another look inside Drax's dungeons in 50 shades of yellow.
In all the other versions, the second practice arena is located in a small forest clearing. The most radically different version of this screen is on the PLUS/4, which has the leafy bit stretched all the way to the top of the action screen, although you can see traces of the clouds above where the tree lines are in the original. Again, sloppy but adequate.
As before, the most similar two are surprisingly the C64 and APPLE versions. The APPLE version seems to have more colours in use, considering that the trees have a darker hue of green in the leaves than the C64 version. I'm not an expert on trees, but my guess is the graphician attempted to draw birch trees into the background. The snakes affect none at all in this, since both the snakes in the C64 version are painted in colours already used by other things on the screen. Interesting, to say the least.
The ACORN versions now have a day-time scenery, so we can see how the characters and all the other things really look like. According to the Acorn palette, humans have a purple skin. And birch trees are purple as well. But considering the options, it's not too bad. Also, the Acorn sky is full of static birds instead of clouds, which have a better excuse of looking like they're staying still. But, considering it's Acorn, it could be a lot worse.
Of course, the SPECTRUM version is constant with its detail-over-colour policy, and it pays off well for the most part. I will probably always have a problem with trees not being brown or grey, but yellow, and them standing on yellow ground. It just looks like they're sand-trees standing on desert. But other than this lack of natural colours, the SPECTRUM version looks absolutely fine.
But it's the AMSTRAD version that continues to impress me the most here. It's truly the closest contestant to the 16-bits in terms of graphics. The snakes have a more bluish hue here, at least for the most part; the trees look more like balsa or lime trees or something, instead of birch; the sky has a more varied arrangement of clouds, and there's a good amount of focus put into the overall colouring to make the scenery look less desolate with more greenish colours. I'm not sure if it fits all that well together with the barbarian theme, but it looks much better than the other 8-bits.
Again, the 16-bits have drastic differences in their use of colour. The AMIGA version goes for a more subtle and darker look even in the forest setting, which is supposed to be the least gloomy scenery in the game, while the ATARI ST version has a clearly brighter and more detailed background with a slight emphasis on the effects of sunlight. Somehow, I think the Amiga version manages to convey the idea of the game better with its palette.
The DOS version is just as purple as before, which can be a bit irritating, but at least the background has more detail than any of the 8-bits, apart from perhaps the Spectrum version. Most of the graphics are still copied straight from the original, which doesn't offer a whole lot of interest, but at least some of the textures make the decorations look more decorative than, for example, in the original.
|Screenshots from Combat scenery #1. Middle row: Acorn BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron.|
Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore Plus/4 (MB), Apple ][.
Bottom row, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, DOS.
At least in the case of all the official 8-bit versions, the other two backgrounds can be only accessed by loading in the "Fight To The Death" portion of the game, which will play much like the Practice portion of the game, as this also includes 8 opponents, and will take place within two different screens, but it happens to end with a duel against Drax himself. I've never gotten there, and never probably will have the patience to try without cheats, so screenshots for the final fight will not be included. The 16-bits will change the scenery completely at some point during the single player game.
This room with Drax sitting on his throne kind of reminds me of that Return of the Jedi scene with Leia being held a hostage at Jabba the Hutt's dungeon, as you can see princess Mariana here seated beside Jabba's - sorry, Drax's throne, at least in some versions. For some reason, Mariana was left out of the Amstrad, Acorn, Spectrum, Atari ST and Amiga versions, and the 8-bit Atari version has Mariana replaced with four skeletons. Creepy. Well, in an effort to make up for these omissions, the original unofficial PLUS/4 conversion by Muffbusters has some MB logos latched onto the walls, as well as an apparently naked Mariana. At least I can't see her wearing anything... yes, those two black pixels must clearly be nipples. How charming.
Until now, I hadn't noticed that the poles at both ends of the screen are now made of stone, and have skulls placed at the top of them. Nice attention to detail right there. Focusing now entirely on that little detail, you can see that all the other 8-bits have skulls on their stone poles except for the ACORN, 8-BIT ATARI and SPECTRUM versions, all of which still feature similar tree-like structures they had in the Practice section. The missing skulls are balanced with more skulls on the two 16-bits and the AMSTRAD version.
As for the other decorations in the throne room: the original C64 version has very little noteworthy in terms of decor, but it does have a half-grey, half-red wall with a yellow stripe going left to right behind Drax's seat, two windows and a set of stairs leading up to Drax's throne. Well, yeah - you can also see a starry night sky from the windows, and there's also Mariana, but I already mentioned her.
Most of the conversions follow this idea, although every version has a singular look to them. The 16-bit versions feature doorways instead of windows, as well as a couple of torches burning on top of the doorways, the effect of which has been made more effective again on the AMIGA. The APPLE and DOS versions feature a funky checkered marble floor motif and a nice diamond pattern in the stripe behind Drax. The SPECTRUM version is here at its most incoherent, but it's still not too bad - it just doesn't feature as many interesting details as most of the other versions. The ACORN versions feature no points of interest at all, as there is nothing in the background except for an old bearded man version of Drax and a red brick wall. The AMSTRAD version takes the trophy for the most curious background modification, as it only has one very small window under the letter B, but it makes a significant difference in the lighting of the room. It's a very interesting take on the theme, and to be honest, it looks exactly like I would imagine the lair of an evil mastermind of the Iron Age would look like. Then again, Drax is supposed to be an emperor, so I guess a proper throne room as it appears on the 16-bits suits him better. I just happen to like the style on the Amstrad version more.
|Screenshots from Combat scenery #2. Middle left: Acorn BBC Micro. Middle right: Acorn Electron.|
Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Apple ][.
Bottom row, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, DOS.
And then we get to the final scenery in the game - the Pit, as they call it. What can I say? It's a stony pit with doors on both sides, and a balcony above the Pit for Drax and Mariana to watch your battles from.
Thankfully, the list of detail differences is much smaller than in any of the other rooms. Let's start with something less obvious: the back wall of the Pit in the original C64 version is the only one of the lot that doesn't have any clear sort of texture to it. All the other versions have clear bricks. Another less obvious detail is that only the C64 and SPECTRUM versions have torches placed above the doorways. The AMSTRAD, AMIGA and ATARI ST versions feature torches as well, but they are placed on the walls beside Drax and Mariana. The 8-BIT ATARI version has no doorways, and the brickwalls on the above floor have no depth or texture. Drax looks nothing like his previous self on the ACORN versions, and Mariana has such a bad colouring on her that she looks more like a purple wookie.
Two of my favourite differences in this lot have a lot to do with princess Mariana. The other one is her posture in the APPLE version, which is more provocative than in any other version - and she's also wearing a strapless. At the opposite side, the 8-BIT ATARI version of Mariana is wearing a much more genteel sort of a dress. Not very barbarian, I'd say. But for me, the most interesting difference in detail had to do with depth perception, which I also noticed by looking at Mariana. I thought, "boy, she looks awfully small on the Amiga", but then I noticed, so does Drax. So, the AMIGA graphician has made the Pit look bigger than in any other version, thus making Drax and Mariana to appear further away. Which makes quite a lot of sense, really. The two barbarians fighting down in the Pit should be much closer to the screen than the two observers, and the AMIGA version is the only one where this has been handled properly.
|Screenshots of a successful deliverance of the Flying Neck Chop move, and the arrival of the little green gremlin.|
Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, DOS, Apple ][, ZX Spectrum.
Bottom left: Atari ST. Bottom right: Acorn BBC Micro.
Yeah, yeah... leaving the best things last. Well, you won't be all too happy to know that neither the 8-BIT ATARI version nor the PLUS/4 versions feature any visible blood-splurting head-chopping action nor even the little green monster, but it does make my workload a bit smaller.
So, while this should have made for more controversy than what the game was actually notorious for, I suppose getting the head-chopping move through successfully was such a difficult task, that it got past most of the censors. Of course, you can easily accomplish this in practice mode against an uncontrolled human player, but what's the fun in that? Anyway, the original animation sequence for the head-chop kind of winning goes like this: the head gets cut off of the victim's shoulders, and some blood splurts out, while he's still standing for a couple of seconds. While the head is flying off somewhere, the remaining corpse falls on his knees and then falls flat on the ground. After everything has settled on their places, the little green monster arrives on the screen (as he does whenever someone gets killed). If he comes across the severed head during his walk, he kicks it off to the right, and if the severed head fell far enough from the corpse, you might see it bounce off from the ground once or twice. Then, once the green monster reaches the rightmost end of the corpse, he laughs a few times and then starts dragging the corpse away. Finally, the winner walks backwards to his own exit.
There are some missing bits in some of the versions that have this animation stuff otherwise kept in. For instance, the SPECTRUM version doesn't have blood splurting out of the victim's neck as graphically - just a similar flash of red matter as in a regular hit, and also, the green monster doesn't laugh when picking up the corpse. This lack of laughter can be witnessed on AMSTRAD as well. The worst version of this sequence can be found on the ACORN computers, but while it's bad, it's also hilarious. The severed head jumps off straight up into the air quite high and when it bounces off the ground, it still jumps surprisingly high. The little green monster is as cyan as he is in the DOS version, which is weird, since the Acorn has lots of green displayed on the screen otherwise.
After all this talk of colours and details, the fact still remains that graphically, the most important part of the game is the animation of the player characters, although colours and details are what make the game so enjoyable. For the most part, we have a surprisingly well-matched lot here, but there are some clearly worse examples in the mix as well. So, all things considered, here are the results for the graphics:
1. COMMODORE AMIGA
2. ATARI ST
3. AMSTRAD CPC
4. COMMODORE 64
5. ZX SPECTRUM / APPLE ][
6. COMMODORE PLUS/4 (both)
7. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
8. ACORN ELECTRON + BBC MICRO
9. ATARI 8-BIT
This game is one of the rare games that you don't necessarily connect with any music, even though it has a theme tune. At least the original does. Not that many people remember it since not all versions had the theme tune included, but it was composed by the late Richard Joseph (1954-2007), based on Basil Poledouris's music in Conan The Barbarian, which I think is very fitting in many ways. The theme tune is actually a very long one with a few distinctly different parts, but most of you enthusiastic barbarians out there will probably have never noticed it, since you're too busy chopping heads off. Which is understandable, but if this is the case, you're missing out on one of the most interesting, complex and fitting pieces of SID music ever made for any game. I found this very nice sheet music version of the Barbarian theme by David Youd on YouTube, check it out.
That said, the sound effects on the C64 aren't too bad either. You get a few different sorts of swish-sounds from the sword, a couple of different thump noises when someone takes a hit, a nice cling of two blades colliding, and the unmistakable sounds of a head being severed and the results of it. The little green goblin or whatever he is, has his own few exclusive sounds: a nice clunk when he kicks the severed head (and the head bouncing around like an giant ball filled with air), and the low laughter when he picks up the corpse. All the sound effects are very effective in their own particular way at creating a powerful atmosphere, so it's even recommendable to not choose the music for your soundtrack. But you should definitely listen to the music when you're not playing.
The AMSTRAD version of the theme tune is missing some parts from it, but at least it's there, and it doesn't sound too different in its choice of sound types for the music. The sound effects, however, are a bit disappointing, as they have no real feel of effort to them. Most of the sounds are just slightly different versions of the same clunks and swishes, and the metallic cling doesn't sound like a metallic cling at all. The green thing doesn't laugh, and the head bounces with a similar sound to all the other samey clunks.
I was a bit surprised to find out that the theme tune was done for the SPECTRUM version as well, and even using some sort of trickery to make it sound like it was bi-tonal (two voices played simultaneously). What the tune is missing is a simultaneous bass line to be played alongside the melody line, as the person responsible for the sound conversions chose to do harmonics for the melody instead. It's also a bit too slow, which makes it even more uncomfortable to listen to, but all things considered, it's still a bit impressive that the theme tune was included. However, it is only played during the menu screens. When the battle is on, all you will hear are the bleepy spectrumized sounds of different kinds of hits - not even sword-swishing can be heard. And the usually green little thing makes no sounds at all. So, for the most part, it's even more unimpressive than the Amstrad version, but with 48k and a single-channel beeper, you cannot really expect too much.
Both the ACORN versions sound just as bad. And when I mean "bad", I mean that there is no music at all, and all the sound effects are non-descriptive blurpy noises. Easily the worst of the lot so far. But the DOS version isn't too far off, with its own, slightly more varied blurpy noise effects. At least it has the theme tune included, even if it's a less impressive single-channel beepy version than what the Spectrum version has. The APPLE ][ version is in the same league, with its similarly single-channeled theme tune and only marginally less unimpressive sound effects compared to the DOS version. In fact, I might give the Apple version a tied spot with the Spectrum version, because I can't decide which version sounds less epic.
Before I get onto the 16-bits, I want to go through the unofficial 8-bit versions. First, the ATARI 800 version by L.K. Avalon has its very own theme tune, which is a much more straightforward tune with a pop-music sense of everything. Not very fitting, but I guess the conversion team couldn't handle the awesomeness of the original tune. The sound effects are fairly well-made, and are easily better than on most of the other 8-bits, except for the original. And perhaps the Amstrad version as well. From the two PLUS/4 versions, only the Muffbusters one features any sounds at all. It has its own singular title tune (again), which is played on the title/loading screen, whatever you'd call it, but it also has the regular title tune kept in some form, as well as some acceptable sound effects. Not the worst of the lot, but I still wouldn't call it enjoyable. If anything, it could be considered almost an equal to the APPLE ][ version.
Finally, we come to the 16-bits. Surprisingly enough, both the AMIGA and ATARI ST versions feature sampled human voices, most of which have been taken straight from another Schwarzenegger film of the swords-and-sorcery kind, Red Sonja. The AMIGA version takes this idea even further by including a couple of speech samples, most notably the line "Prepare to die!" spoken at the beginning of each round. Unfortunately, neither version has any proper music included, unless you count the static beat of a single timpani-like drum after a kill. With all the sampled human sounds, though, you can quite easily forgive the 16-bits for not having the green little goblin laughing at the end of each round, but I would have liked to hear a 16-bit rendition of the theme tune. For this reason, I shall have to make the C64 original share the top spot with the two 16-bits.
1. COMMODORE 64 / ATARI ST / COMMODORE AMIGA
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. ATARI 8-BIT
4. ZX SPECTRUM / APPLE ][
5. COMMODORE PLUS/4 - Muffbusters version
6. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
7. ACORN ELECTRON + BBC MICRO
8. COMMODORE PLUS/4 - SF version
This has got to be the most confusing game to give scores for. I don't think any of these total scores really represent the versions very accurately, and apart from the top and bottom bits, the order is a bit bonkers. Take a look:
1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 9, Graphics 6, Sounds 8 = TOTAL 23
2. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 4, Graphics 9, Sounds 8 = TOTAL 21
3. ATARI ST: Playability 4, Graphics 8, Sounds 8 = TOTAL 20
4. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 5, Graphics 7, Sounds 7 = TOTAL 19
5. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 6, Graphics 5, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 16
6. COMMODORE PLUS/4 - MB: Playability 7, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 15
7. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 8, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 14
8. APPLE ][: Playability 3, Graphics 5, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 13
9. COMMODORE PLUS/4 - SF: Playability 7, Graphics 4, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 12
10. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 8
11. ACORN ELECTRON + BBC MICRO: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
The mathematical type of scoring I've been using for the blog doesn't go together well with Barbarian, because it's a two-player game at heart, and certainly the most enjoyable at it. This comparison has been made by playing against computer opponents, which will never give you a good idea of how a game feels to play against your friend. But since I haven't been able to play most of these versions against a friend, I'll have to come up with another kind of a list based almost entirely on each version's likeliness of being thoroughly enjoyable as a two-player game, combined with each game as a body of artwork and its functionality. Difficult, but here we go:
1. COMMODORE 64 / AMIGA / ATARI ST
2. AMSTRAD CPC / ZX SPECTRUM
3. APPLE ][
4. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
5. COMMODORE PLUS/4 - both versions
7. ATARI 8-BIT
That might be closer to how I think my order of preference goes. But in case this still doesn't feel all that right, my suggestion is, dig out all the versions and test them out yourself. Barbarian is mostly a pretty enjoyable game, and can easily withstand repeated playing, but will mostly depend on your skills and your opponents, how enjoyable it will be in the long run.
Earlier, I spoke of some controversy that the game was known for - the violent bit. Well, the other bit was the original cover art, which infamously featured a half-naked Michael Van Wijk (a.k.a. Wolf from the Gladiators) as the hero, and the bikini-clad Maria Whittaker, who was known for her association with The Sun tabloid's Page 3 topless photo shoots, as the damsel in distress, princess Mariana. It's very likely the first occasion of a game cover art where sex sells. And that it certainly did. This idea was further explored by some hackers later on, who modified the game's graphics to feature naked versions of the princess, as well as our hero. But happily, Palace proved themselves worthy of the attention, since Barbarian - The Ultimate Warrior still remains as one of the most revered one on one fighting games, and a rare example of a representative of the genre which focuses entirely on swordfighting.
|Remake by Thomas Bolhuis.|
A French QBasic programmer who goes by the name of barbarian.1987 on the LemonAmiga forum has done a fairly mammoth job of remaking most of the old official versions of Barbarian for the Sega Megadrive. All files are available for download separately on his website, so if you're a Sega gamer and wished that you would have had Barbarian about 20-25 years ago, this is your chance to fulfill your wish. But if you want to have a go at a proper upgraded remake, this version by Thomas Bolhuis might by more to your liking.
That's it for today, I hope that was worth the wait! I'm still quite busy with real life, so I can't say when the next entry will be posted, but hopefully in a week or so. But while you're waiting, comments are appreciated! Once again, thanks for reading!