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Death Sword (PC) artwork

Death Sword (PC) review

"DEATH SWORD! That's the kind of name that would grab any 10-year-old's attention, and it sure grabbed mine. I saw this colorful game full of bloody decapitations and bikini babes running on an Apple at Electronics Boutique (R.I.P.), memorized the title that had been unceremoniously Scotch-taped to the monitor, and knew I desperately, desperately needed it."

DEATH SWORD! That's the kind of name that would grab any 10-year-old's attention, and it sure grabbed mine. I saw this colorful game full of bloody decapitations and bikini babes running on an Apple at Electronics Boutique (R.I.P.), memorized the title that had been unceremoniously Scotch-taped to the monitor, and knew I desperately, desperately needed it. But I could not have it, because my family only owned a 4.77 Mhz (with 10 Mhz "turbo" toggle) Epson IBM compatible. My young mind performed the complex logical calculation.

"IBM compatible means . . . Apple games will not work."

A few months later, I saw the IBM version in a gaudy red-and-blue box -- it had been released as part of Epyx's inexpensive Maxx Out! line-up (which also included "gems" such as Spiderbot and Rad Warrior). Unfortunately, I had blown all my cash on Phantasy Star 2, so I was screwed. I vowed to return another day. I also vowed not to waste money on any more masterful Genesis RPGs, when I could instead spend that money on DEATH SWORD!

To keep a short story short, a full year passed before I encountered Death Sword again, repackaged with grittier, more realistic cover art. Under the misguided assumption that "re-release" correlates to "worth releasing twice", I bought it and . . . IT WAS HORRIBLE!

Based on the screenshot to the right, you may believe the four-color visuals to be the source of my disgust. Quite the contrary; I was accustomed to CGA graphics, although it's true that, deep down, I envied the Apple's glorious color (thank heavens I hadn't seen the Amiga port).

This one-on-one fighter's decapitations impressed me; the lopping of heads is accompanied by a dramatic "BLOOP!" and vertical spray of purple blood. In the dungeon, Princess Mariana's belly button peeked out as she leaned over the high stone wall. In the throne room, Mariana's bare legs were on full display as she lay at the feet of the diabolical wizard Drax. This was pretty bold stuff for America.

The combat system was also ambitious -- eight types of movement supporting eight methods of attack -- but flawed by "remote control syndrome". The lag between button press and onscreen action made it nearly impossible to react to enemies' telegraphed movements in real-time. In fighting games, there's nothing more aggravating than reading an opponent's next attack but being unable to do anything about it. Such situations are usually due to player incompetence; in Death Sword, such situations are due to developer inexperience.

Each opponent operates on a fairly consistent algorithm; that is to say, memorizing a particular sequence of attacks for each of the eight clone swordfighters is likely to lead to repeated success. The third opponent is the easiest of all; simply spam the leaping, spinning decapitation blade attack. He'll step backwards and dodge the first attack. The second swing will catch the hapless foe's neck before he has a chance to move.


So, even though it's impossible to succeed by using a modern fighting game's playing style, Death Sword is not an impossible game for those who are willing to memorize and practice, practice, practice. Until you fight against Drax himself, that is. Once Drax steps down from his throne, the game of swing-and-parry becomes a joke; instead, you must contend with stilted controls to leap above and roll underneath an endless barrage of fireballs. Perish and the entire gauntlet of barbarians must be vanquished for another shot at Drax. Succeed and . . . I don't know. I gave up. But I've been told that the game does not end with a four-color sex scene, so I can't imagine it's worth the effort.

Via its more colorful incarnations, Death Sword garnered some measure of success in Europe, where it was released as Barbarian and teased customers with scantily-clad covergirl Maria Whittaker. In the States, the game was drowned by a sea of better, deeper PC titles -- including its Maxx Out! siblings. American gamers would have to wait until 1992 for their bloody breakout hit.


zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (July 19, 2009)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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darketernal posted July 20, 2009:

I can testify that this game, Barbarian as us Commodore 64/286 PC users called it was very popular in Europe. If anything then for that little troll/goblin like thing that always came on the field after you decapitated someone to drag the body of the opponent away, while at the same time punting it's head like a ball away.
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sashanan posted July 20, 2009:

I always wondered how the name confusion came about between this game and the one where you control your character with the F keys through a maze of death traps discovered only by having run into them before. Regional name switch, is it?
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bloomer posted July 20, 2009:

Barbarian absolutely rocked the C64. And with killer music. They also had Maria Whittaker on the box, a move which sparked the 'babes on boxes' boom in UK+Europe. Then came stuff like the cover for Defender of the Crown, where the swooning lady seemed to be dragged earthwards by the weight of her tits, and lots of commentary about such things in magazines.

We also got the vaguely Dark Castle-ish (and ultimately, crap I think) Amiga/PC 'Barbarian' here. The two titles just had to co-exist. They had the same name in this region.

Apple II Deathsword is extremely good. No music, but it was one of the handful of 8-bit Apple II games that used double hi-res mode in game, like Rampage or Airheart. In fact those are the only three I can think of that did it.
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zigfried posted July 20, 2009:

The IBM version had no music. If I knew the C64 version had a great soundtrack, I probably would have mentioned the lack of ANY MUSIC AT ALL, but it was common for IBM games to have zero music back then. The days before Adlib and Soundblaster, yada yada.

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sashanan posted July 20, 2009:

It was mercy, I tell you, compared to the games that did have "music" blaring out of the internal speaker. Particularly non-optional music. But at least my XT had a physical volume slider on it - I never quite figured out why later computers no longer did.
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bloomer posted July 21, 2009:

Here's the C64 soundtrack as an mp3. It's one big medley. You could play the game for 6 minutes+ before it loops back to the start (so I cut the mp3 off after that point). It has many phases and transitions, and is variously in 5 and 6 time signatures. Get it while it's hot! Or more specifically, til a few days have passed and I clear my webspace up.

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