Today's game is Athena's 1992 NES poke-em-up Sword Master, and I'll tell you now that the title does not refer to the game's hero. He can stab his sword straight forward and swing it in an overhead chop, and that doesn't seem like it should be enough for mastery. No, he's more of a Sword Journeyman. A Sword Enthusiastic Amateur, if you will. Let's hope basic proficiency is enough to see him through this adventure.
Not much razzle-dazzle in evidence on the title screen - the logo's a little art nouveau and it's on fire, but it's not doing much to capture my interest. Here's hoping that the plot is a little less generic.
It's an evil wizard, communing with a magic mirror. I don't think I'm making too much of an assumption on this wizard's morality, he's wearing a robe made from scorpion parts and my nan's old curtains. You wouldn't see Gandalf in something like that.
Here's the wizard up close. He's grumpy because he ordered his hoodie online without properly checking the sizing chart. He looks like he's performing his dark enchantments from inside a swing bin, and not even wearing his favourite Ninja Turtles bandanna can cheer him up.
Then a young lady, who is has a ninety-five percent chance of being a princess, is abducted so I guess my hopes for a non-clichéd plot are cruelly dashed. Oh well, it's not that important. Super Mario Bros. 3 has the same plot as Super Mario Bros. 1, and it's one of the best games ever made. Warning: Sword Master is not as good as SMB3. I'm sure you'd already guessed that, but I didn't want to get your hopes up by accident.
Our hero stands atop a cliff, pointing his sword at a distant castle. "I am going to that castle," his posture seems to say, "and I will stab every single thing that I find there, be it man, beast or hideous man-beast." He's a real go-getter, so he is. I hope he brought some comfortable shoes for his upcoming hike through the forest, though. Maybe a cereal bar or something to keep his energy levels up.
And we're off, with our mighty tangerine-coloured warrior hacking his way through a flock of bats. I know a lot of NES games can be described as walking from left to right and hitting things, but that's an even more accurate description than usual in Sword Master's case because you can't turn around. Always facing his goals with unshakeable conviction, that's our hero. As for the hitting things part, unsurprisingly you use a sword. There's a normal forwards stab, a crouching poke for all your hamstring-severing needs and holding up on the D-pad while you attack performs an overhead swing that does slightly more damage but leaves you a little more vulnerable. You've also got a shield, so often overlooked by videogame knights on a righteous quest, and you can hold it high or low to block projectiles. For now, though, I'm simply using a lot of jumping overhand slashes to kill these bats, bats that don't seem particularly invested in attacking the player. If you ignore them they'll fly right past you, but I didn't start playing a game called Sword Master to not hit things with a sword. Anyway, they're bats and this is a videogame so they're obviously evil, demonic bats and they'll surely be up to no good when they get where they're going. I'm just saving some other poor adventurer from having to deal with them later
A skeleton approaches! It approaches quite slowly, the illusory musculature provided by whatever foul necromancer is animating it being no match for being alive, but here it comes and it's determined to run me through with the breadstick it's carrying. This is something of a mini-boss battle, as the screen stops scrolling once the skeleton appears and won't start moving again until you emerge triumphant. This is the general pattern of Sword Master, then: short sections spent chopping up minor enemies and negotiating some light platforming action, interspersed with a large number of one-on-one fights with tougher foes. Not that the skeleton is much of a challenge. Just bait out his stabs and then bonk him on the head. It's the only way a skeleton will learn.
As our lone warrior makes his way through a dark forest on his way to a castle, while being attacked by bats and skeletons, it's very difficult not to make a comparison between Sword Master and Castlevania. Clearly Athena took some inspiration from Konami's classic when they were putting Sword Master together, and that's fine by me because Castlevania is great and I love a horror-themed videogame. However, where Castlevania's stages are tight, expertly-assembled areas that require players to find a certain aggressive rhythm in order to progress, the constant miniboss encounters of Sword Master make it a much more stop-start affair, and thus the Castlevania influence doesn't extend far beyond the aesthetic. It's a nice aesthetic, though.
Now it's time to fight a big blue chap. I was going to call him a Cyclops, but I can't tell how many eyes he has. He doesn't seem big enough to be a giant, and he's a bit too monsterish to be a barbarian, so I don't know what he is. Apart from "angry," I mean. Fighting him is very similar to fighting the skeleton, although this battle is much tougher because the collision detection on his club is not very good, and you'll keep getting tagged by it even though you're sure you're far enough away. Weirdly, it was only this creature's club that I had problems with on that front, and almost all the other attacks in the game have solid, predictable hitboxes. Let's just pretend his club is surrounded by a foetid aura of corruption. Given that the only place he has to store his club when he's not using it is inside his loincloth, I don't think that's too much of a stretch.
The end of the stage is guarded by a wizard, and his purpose is to teach you how to block projectiles with your shield. He loves projectiles, does the wizard. Horizontal projectiles, projectiles fired diagonally upwards, a rain of projectiles that assault you from above, he's a regular Projectile Master. I'd want to keep the man with the sword as far away from me as possible if I was an old man in a robe, too, and while it was working well for the wizard at first I soon learned that I can crouch-walk forwards with my shield raised and that was the end of the wizard.
Stage two is a village on the castle's outskirts, inhabited by zombies, zombies with no legs that have adapted the breaststroke for non-aquatic purposes and the Lost Souls from Doom, although thankfully they're much less aggressive than Doom's flaming skull-monsters.
There's also some platforming. The village's potholes are running out of control, and to top it off they're being patrolled by these indestructible floating eyeballs because gravity alone apparently wasn't enough of a challenge for a man in full plate armour. It's a little aggravating that these eyeballs are indestructible, mind you. Of all the body parts you'd think could be dealt with by the decisive thrust of a blade, eyeballs would be near the top of the list. They should have been hovering thighs, something with a bit of substance to them.
The village exit is patrolled by a knight, and I'm annoyed that he looks cooler than my knight. I think it's the red plume sticking out of his helmet, it gives him a certain je ne sais quoi that my "medieval advertisement for Tango" look does not possess.
The knight has the same reach as you and is a bit more intelligent than the skeletons, so here's where you need to start paying attention if you want to progress in Sword Master. The one-on-one fights make up the bulk of the game, and they quickly become very challenging - but crucially they (mostly) don't feel too horrendously cheap. There are patterns to be learned and movements to be exploited, and if you're looking for a retro game that demands you take the time to learn you opponent's moves, then Sword Master might just be a good bet for you. As for the knight, I had a lot of success with jumping at him and doing the overhead slash while moving backwards in mid-air, which most of the time put me just outside of stabbing range when I landed.
The knight dropped an icon of a shepherd's crook when I defeated him. Have I condemned a flock of sheep to a lingering death on some distant hillside, uncared for and forgotten now that their owner is dead?
Never mind, it was actually a magic wand that allows our hero to transform into a wizard by pressing the select button. The comparisons between Sword Master and Castlevania grow even stronger, because you can also switch to a white-robed mage by pressing select in Castlevania 3, assuming you recruited Sypha on your travels.
Becoming a master of magic allows for an extra revenue stream when you hire yourself out for kid's birthday parties, as well as letting you launch short-range magical bolts from you hands. You can charge the bolts up by holding down the button, too, although your magic is limited: bafflingly, the amount of magic you have is determined by how full your experience bar is. Defeating the lesser enemies between the one-on-one fights slowly fills your experience bar, which is maddeningly not called you magic bar or mana bar or anything having to do with wizardy. If I didn't have the compulsion to press every button on the pad now and then I might never have realised I even had magic powers, and someone playing Sword Master without the manual to hand could easily go through the whole game without ever realising their hidden power. But what can I use my hidden power on?
Ah, Godzilla, you'll do. He shoots fire out of his mouth, I shoot fire out of my hands, that seems like a fair contest... although I think I would have been better off using the sword. The sword doesn't cost magic - sorry, experience - points and has about the same range as the My First Conjuration projectiles the staff provides you with.
The sword is definitely the better option for fighting this lizardman, because he just kept jumping over my projectiles and kicking me in the head like he'd learned all his moves by playing the Ninja Turtles arcade game. Switching between Knight and Wizard modes is fast, but it's a shame it's not slightly faster: it would have been very satisfying to bait the lizardman into jumping over my projectile, only to find that I'd switched to the sword while he was in mid-air and he's suddenly jumping towards an experiment in determining just how good lizards really are at regrowing severed body parts.
Sword Master is not shy about throwing the same monsters at you over and over again, and in this stage you must re-triumph over the knight and the wizard before reaching the end-of-stage guardian. It's the wizard again, but he's supplement his magical attack with a bloody great axe. An axe that he can shoot magic out of. He's a traitor to every set of fantasy game tropes imaginable. Wizards can't use axes, that's not fair. Was he listening to the the blasphemous tome of the ancient sorcerers on audiobook while he did the strength training necessary to build an axe-wielding physique? I think not.
Complaints aside, I rather like the design of the axe-wizard, and of all the enemies in general. They're clean, bold sprites that have a pleasing fantasy look to them, almost like they're based on action figures from a non-existent "Dungeon Fighters!" toyline. Sword Master is a very competently designed, solidly-built game in many regards - graphically it's very impressive, sprite flicker aside, and it's even got parallax scrolling, a rarity for a NES game. The music is above average, with plenty of high-tempo, driving tracks that are a perfect accompaniment to cracking skeleton skulls, even if they never quite approach the quality of Konami or Capcom's action game soundtracks. There's even a voice clip of your character shouting "Huuh!" when you swing your sword, and it takes a surprisingly long to for it to become irritating.
The next stage is all about jumping, and jumping is something that Sword Master has a strange relationship with. For starters, you sometimes jump higher than usual, and I couldn't figure out why. Apparently there's a line in the manual that states "hitting the jump button consecutively allows you to extend your jumps," but doesn't explain what it means by "consecutively." I tried timing my jumps just as I landed from a previous jump, a la Super Mario 64, and I also tried franticly hammering the button at random intervals, neither of which produced consistent results. In the end I put it down to certain parts of the castle's stone floor being springier than others. Luckily you're never forced to use the high jump.
The other odd quirk is that, especially in the later stages, it's rare that you'll make a jump and land solidly on the other platform. Instead you'll hit the edge and spend a moment or two falling off (and kinda through) the platform, but if you press jump again while this is happening you can become airborne once more and nail the landing. At first it seems that Sword Master simply demands pixel-perfect jumping skills, but scrabbling for purchase on the edges of platforms happened so often - and was so consistent - that I've come to believe it was an intentional gameplay mechanic, a sort of half-hearted effort to include Ninja Gaiden-style wall-jumps into the game, and as such it's much less frustrating that it seems like it's going to be the first time you slide into oblivion despite clearly getting your toes on the platform.
The jumping in Sword Master isn't all peaches and rainbows, however. I was stumped for quite a while on this jump, where every attempt I made ended with me hitting the eyeball and either falling to my death or being knocked back onto the platform I just came from. In the end, I had to look it up. Turns out the solution is that you have to walk off the platform, underneath the ball, and then simply jump up off the thin air you're standing on to make it to the next platform. Of course, why didn't I think of that?! I'm really glad this opaque bullshit is the solution, I'd have felt bad if there was a glaringly obvious way past the eyeball that I just wasn't getting.
Ah, I see it was Satan himself who arranged these accursed platforms! Slow day in Hell, was it? Honestly, I don't think this is the Prince of Lies. All he does is hover around the top of the screen dropping three easily-avoided projectiles at a time. It's more impish than Satanic, and it makes this boss considerably easier than most of the previous creatures I've faced. I'm not complaining: I saw I was about to fight a flying red devil-monster and I had a sudden traumatic flashback to Ghosts 'n Goblins, so the fight ended up being a huge relief.
Things have calmed down a little now our hero has reached the castle itself, and it's back to the usual slaying of bats and mini-boss battles on a flat, open level. This is a good time to mention that I've picked up another couple of spells on my travels, which can be switched between when the game is paused. Their uncharged versions are still projectiles, but the "explosion" power has the notable effect of making a bunch of explosions appear if you charge it up. You'll, erm, just have to trust me that there are multiple explosions.
There's not much to say about this knight with a spiked flail. He's red, he's fast and he loves to merrily gad around the castle like the Prince of the Elven Folk. I was so taken by his rambunctious energy that I too leapt into the air, hoping for a graceful aerial battle between two honourable combatants, but he's a cheating git whose armour is apparently much better than mine, so I ended up waiting on the round and stabbing him pettily in the ankles.
There's also a dragon. It's hard to summon up any enthusiasm for this dragon, because earlier I fought a dragon that looked much more like Godzilla and less like a regular dragon that's learned to walk unconvincingly on its hind legs.
As I entered the next stage and crept past the castle's spike traps and roaming slimes, (do slimes roam? Ooze, perhaps,) I was reminded less of Castlevania and more of the NES port of Dragon's Lair - but a NES Dragon's Lair that isn't a hateful exercise in frustration orchestrated by people who wouldn't recognise the concept of fun if it came up to them, grabbed them firmly by their pubic hair and said "hi, I'm the concept of fun and you have wronged me." I think it's the purple brickwork that does it.
The boss is a barbarian, certainly more of a barbarian than the blue troll from the first stage. Why, he's got an axe and everything! He's also got the power to completely ignore the wall of lightning I sent towards him using my new lightning spell. I'm not even sure it hurt him. He didn't act like it hurt, but I confess I don't know how people usually react when they're stuck by lightning. Say "ouch," fall over, sizzle a bit, not necessarily in that order? Whatever the case, the boss did none of these thing, opting instead to embed his axe into my skull as though he's mistaken me for a good source of winter firewood. It's a difficult battle, as are all the battles by this point in the game, mostly because the bosses now have much larger health bars and you have to concentrate for longer when one lapse will see you lose half your health. Did I mention that he can throw his axe like a boomerang? Because he can. We're going to have to stop using the word "barbarian" to describe thoughtless killers, because the level of aerodynamic engineering needed to produce a boomerang axe is the very opposite of thoughtless.
I couldn't help it. It happened by instinct, instinct honed by years spent trying to beat Dracula to death with a whip. I tried to hit the candle, to see if there was a power-up inside. Never have I felt so completely beholden to the media I consume, so thanks for this grim psychological awakening, Sword Master.
This guy is definitely the Sword Master of the title. His sword's made of fire! He can even turn it on and off like a lightsaber. Which he does, repeatedly, the big show-off. Of course, you don't get the title of Sword Master just for carrying around an oversized sparkler: you've got to have the moves, too, which this boss does. Specifically, he has the move where he ignores all my attacks and attempts to char-grill me from the inside. The old Texas BBQ Enema, that's his MO.
Then there's another knight. This one eschews the golden fripperies and flaming swords of his confederate and instead batters you to death with a chunk of metal on a stick in a manner you'd describe as "workmanlike," if relentless unscheduled trepanation is a kind of work. I tried keeping my distance from the nice man with the whacking stick, hoping maybe we could talk our way through his anger issues, but his mace is spring-loaded and will fire spikes at you if you try to give him some space.
And then there's this prick. Goddamn wizards, man. All I wanted to do was hack at him with my sword but no, he kept creating his own walls of electricity that - guess what - knocked me back when they hit me, a property that my lightning walls most certainly did not possess. If only I had some way to hit him from a distance...
Oh, you like magic, do you? Well then, have all the magic you can eat! I know it looks like I'm throwing spaghetti at you but this is pure magical pain, you old bastard! Sword Master? More like Problem-Solving Master!
Oh hey, it's the wizard from the intro. Overall I've been complimentary about the enemy design in this game, but that's not really good look, is it? Like he graduated from Wizard College only to be immediately crushed by a steamroller. A forlorn Christmas ornament. A bootleg Harry Potter bookmark from a Hong Kong market stall. Not threatening, is what I'm saying, and he's not all that good at fighting. Weirdly enough, when an enemy is flying in Sword Master it puts you at an advantage, because you can walk under them rather than being pinned in the corner by the likes of the knights. Sure, the wizard produces more fireballs than a dragon with hiccups, but you can block them all fairly easily and hit him with a jumping slash when there's a break in the bombardment. What a disappointing way to end the game.
Except it's not the end of the game, and I'm forced to eat my words as the real final boss appears and proceeds to initiate me into an endless maelstrom of death. This demon likes projectiles. Really likes them, and all manner of lightning bolts and fireballs constantly spew from every part of his anatomy that we can see. Presumably they also spew from the parts we can't see and his demonic wang is like a literal fire hose, so I'm counting my blessings that I just have to deal with his head and hands. To damage him, you must attack the mirror on the right of the screen, but you can't get near the mirror when you're constantly being slammed by a wall of dark magic. In the end I had to cheat, which was a shame because up until this point Sword Master had been a tough game but generally a fair one, where learning enemy patterns and adapting your tactics would eventually, with practise, lead to victory. This just feels like a big "screw you," though. Is it doable? I'm sure it is, but only doable by people with far more time and patience than me. So, with Game Genie to the rescue and evil mirror smashed, Sword Master can draw to a close.
Maiden status: rescued, presumed grateful. Time to take her back to wherever she was kidnapped from and eschew any offered reward, for a Sword Master yearns only for the clash of steel in chivalrous combat, preferably in a distant land where people haven't figured out how to throw fireballs. Oh, and maybe some new armour that makes him look less like a mechanical carrot.
Sword Master is a game that demands patience and dedication if you want to make much progress, but is it worth it? I'd say it just about is, final boss excluded. It's a well-made example of the genre, with solid gameplay and a nice look to it. It's not a great game - it's too derivative and stop-start for that - but it can be a fun game, so if you're looking for a retro game to sink your teeth into then that's definitely on offer here. Just try not to think too hard about the Sword Master's relationship with gravity.