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)
Snake, Rattle, and Roll is an oft-overlooked part of Rare’s NES canon. While bad games like Battletoads and the unfortunate Battletoads and Double Dragon (there were also 16-bit ports) captured gaming public’s imagination, Snake, Rattle, and Roll went under the radar.
That’s not to say it didn’t suck. But it still had its charm.
Snake, Rattle, and Roll is the story of two snakes (Rattle and Roll, get it?) who want to go to the moon. Because they are snakes, they can only do this by climbing a big mountain. Snakes are idiots.
Gameplay takes place on a 3/4 isometric playing field, and is very complex- the ability to jump vertically (and in one memorable level, swim) makes this game essentially three-dimensional. Of course, the NES having the limits it does means you don’t go behind much stuff. Thank God for that, because the game is hard enough when you can see where you’re going. This is one of those fun games where everything can kill you. Touch some pointy rocks? You die. Get stomped on by one of the many hopping foot monsters that inhabit this game? You die. Cliffs are your biggest adversaries, since falling off of one means you die too. At first the levels are pretty open and explorable, but this gives way to nightmare hellscapes made of ice (yes, it makes you slide) where every surface is slanted, all the pathways you can take are razor-thin, and there’s wind. Oh, and little shover-arms keep popping out of the walls to knock you straight to hell. And sawblades come out of the ground at random. And there’s rockslides. And a lot of the levels make you struggle against rushing torrential rivers to get anywhere. And did I mention wind? It’s also worth pointing out that every level has a timer, usually a short one.
If all this sounds like Marble Madness, well yeah, it’s kind of the same. Except you’re climbing up in defiance of gravity, and it’s less fair. It’s also much longer. Marble had about 5 levels, and Snake has like 12. And they’re big. Really big. At first you have health, gained by eating little living balls called Nibbly-Pibblies (really) and must fight enemies, but the game pretty quickly dispenses with all of that in favor of giving you no health and letting the levels kill you. There are still Nibbly-Pibblies to be had, but in each level they gain a new means of mobility. At first they just hop around stupidly, but by the end they strafe you mockingly on tiny rotors, daring you to eat them.
If you can endure the horrible difficulty level, Snake is a pretty fun game. The music is hoppin’, the level design is creative, if twistedly evil, and the art is very nice for an NES game. There’s some new (horrible) trick in each level to keep you guessing, and dying, for a long time.
PS: when you finally make it to the end, good luck with the final boss. You poor sap.
6/10 (8/10 if you like pain)