Sword Master (NES)
Did you like the combat in the second Legend of Zelda? If the answer is yes, you’re sick. But the good news is, there’s a game for you anyhow, Sword Master.
The epic of Sword Master is pretty familiar: knight meets girl, knight loses girl to evil magician, knight follows girl while transforming into a wizard. The game has a nice low-fantasy Golden Axe vibe to it, but suffers in the gameplay department. The hero (let’s just call him the Sword Master) can only walk right, Mario 1 style, and moves like a real knight in shining armor- kind of awkwardly. Fortunately, you can hack in all different directions with your sword, which is important since evil comes from everywhere to kill you. Spiders drop from trees, bats fly right at your head, and wolves go for your junk almost constantly. The game gets truly frustrating when ranged enemies show up, who can blast you to atoms before you get close enough to put them down, and on a few occasions when you have to make tough jumps (the Sword Master has no momentum or air control).
Combat can be pretty fun. You juke in and out, performing different sword swings and trying to line your shield up with enemy attacks. Some attacks are too heavy to block, and a few should be eaten for the sake of sticking in the fight. Fights with other sword-and-shield enemies play a lot like a fighting game, until the projectile enemies come out.
Worth noting: your dude can turn into a wizard. You should only do this in select boss fights, because the wizard form can dish out good ranged damage, but is weak on the offense.
Sword Master looks and sounds fantastic for an NES game. There’s parallax backgrounds, decent music, and many characters have sampled grunts and yells when they attack (the hero sounds like he’s swearing). But the pretty veneer can’t disguise a brutal game. Everything is faster than you, most enemies have more health than you can ever manage, and any environments other than flat paths are nearly impossible to navigate without memorization. The first time you play this, you’ll probably die harder than Marley the comically misbehaving dog before you even get through the first level. That said, I have beaten the game, so I know it can be done, and you feel pretty awesome once you do. A lot of it is luck- getting a random health potion drop mid-level can make all the difference.
To game dorks: I know there’s an experience point mechanic that relates to the Wizard form and your HP and stuff, but it never seemed to help or hinder me much. So I didn’t talk about it.
6/10 (7/10 if you are really patient)