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Swords & Serpents (NES) artwork

Swords & Serpents (NES) review

"Like I said, there’s not an in-depth plot. The game is more about exploration and the occasional adrenaline rushes that come from knowing you’re only surviving by the skin of your teeth. It is the very definition of ‘dungeon crawler,’ and embodies most everything you may dread about that phrase. If you’re one of the few who lives for this sort of thing, though, Swords & Serpents is one of the best the NES ever saw."

When Brian Fargo announced that he was at work on a successor to his famed series, The Bard’s Tale, there were many older gamers who prepared themselves for a first-person dungeon romp. It’s just the sort of game he made back when his name inspired a certain measure of awe. The update was significantly different, however, and more accurately reflected where role-playing games are now than it did where they were back in the day. To experience that, you’ll still need to go find one of his old games from that franchise. Or, barring that, you could just pick up Swords & Serpents.

I’m sure there’s a fantastic story behind Swords & Serpents, both from a gamer’s perspective and from the viewpoint shared by the four heroes you will control on the journey through the game. However, all you need to know is that you’re collecting rubies to reassemble a sword you can then use to vanquish a dragon of some sort. I think. Clearly, plot isn’t the game’s strong suit. You only get it small pieces at a time, and without an instruction manual in my possession, anything else I might say would be mere conjecture.

Something more tangible is the sense of adventure you’ll discover the minute you leave the first corridor. It seems you’re in the middle of a massive dungeon, armed with such weak weapons that if you were a smarter warrior, you’d turn tail and run. Assuming you went with a default party (though you can customize a party of your own if you like), you’ll find that you have two magicians and two fighting class characters. As was always the case in such games, a character’s class determines what he or she can equip, and also allows for specialized attacks. Though some may seem the rather generic feel as a negative side to the game, it’s actually just the sort of thing I like. The rules here are quite obvious, and therefore appealing: survive long enough to make it to the next healing spot, or camp out near a temple and battle monsters until you’re strong enough to travel further.

It won’t take long to find those monsters, either. The dungeon is viewed from a first-person perspective. You’ll see hallways stretching off into darkness, walls and doors. Press ‘up’ and you’ll jump forward to the next little bend in the path. Press ‘left’ or ‘right’ and you can turn. Because of the simplistic system, you’ll be able to travel quickly along a given path, but you’ll also encounter monsters with alarming frequency.

Such encounters remain firmly locked in the same first-person perspective. It seems the monsters in this dungeon don’t like to mix up their attacks. If you see a spider wriggling (the game does in fact include monster animations, shockingly) about on the ceiling, you’ll know that the enemy icons and life bars all belong to fiends of the same sort. As you issue commands, you’ll want to keep an eye on the enemy life meters, and also on your own. If you’ve ever played Capcom’s Destiny of an Emperor, the effect is much the same. Battles come rather often, and you don’t see a lot of variety in the monsters you face (progress to later levels and often you’ll witness no more than an obvious palette swap). Just the same, none of this feels like the developer was lazy. It’s clear a lot of work went into making the title impressive.

Battles are more than just a matter of exchanging blows with monsters as you look at the pretty graphics, however. Because you have magicians, you can also cast spells. An enemy encounter thus consists of you mashing the ‘A’ button to attack when you’re controlling a warrior, or pressing ‘B’ to select a spell if you need to do some magical damage or you need to heal a party member. Careful micro-management is required if you wish to attain anything close to success, as most monsters are capable of taking large chunks from your life meters without a second’s thought. You have to balance your need for healing magic with the damage the right spell may do to a given opponent. Otherwise, you’ll be dead within minutes.

Fortunately, you have ways to prevent repeated deaths. Besides healing spells, you’ll find various weapons and armor by looting the bodies of enemies you kill. Or you can head over to an armory if the situation calls for it. If monsters are regularly kicking your butt, it’s a sign that you either need to go up a level or you need to find more with which to defend yourself than just leather armor and perhaps a weak shield. With proper attire, you can quickly turn the tables.

Of course, there’s more to the game than just wandering about and looking for fights. To solve the various puzzles and gain the items you need, you’ll need to find the elderly men that somehow lurk throughout the dungeon. And to gain spells, you’ll have to scour the dungeon’s darkest corners for small scripts written on walls or on passageway floors. The exploration can quickly become addictive, before you even realize it. And though the game does include a semi-proficient map system, the limited view means you’ll probably want to bring along a pencil and some graph paper. That way, you can mark points of interest, such as temples and armories.

As fun as all of this is, though, it’s not for everyone. Like I said, there’s not an in-depth plot. The game is more about exploration and the occasional adrenaline rushes that come from knowing you’re only surviving by the skin of your teeth. It is the very definition of ‘dungeon crawler,’ and embodies most everything you may dread about that phrase. If you’re one of the few who lives for this sort of thing, though, Swords & Serpents is one of the best the NES ever saw. And perhaps most importantly of all, you don’t have to experience it alone.

In a shocking move that I wish more developers mimicked, Interplay chose to allow up to four players to join in on the quest. I’ve spent quite a few hours playing through the dungeon with a friend of mine, and it just never gets old if you’re working with someone else who enjoys old-school gameplay. Together, you can solve riddles, vanquish monsters, and climb ever closer to the top of an enormous labyrinth. Truly, Swords & Serpents was one of the most underappreciated gems the NES ever saw. Next time you see it lining the bottom of a bargain bin—and you almost certainly will—make sure you take it home. You won’t regret it.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (February 07, 2005)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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