Before we get started, I feel like I should be setting the scene via some apt eye-sights:
For those who don’t understand, let me explain – the 80s were a different time; a stranger time. Men were MEN and women were women, and some other men were women.
It’s not like today. Our heroes could pull your head from your shoulders (one-handed) whilst simultaneously ravaging your wife and looting your kitchen cupboards, before taking down a military jet by throwing your decapitated head 12000 feet into the air causing catastrophic damage to the jet’s chassis. They were tough, get it? And as boys in the 80s, this is what we aspired to. If your arms weren’t the circumference of a beta-max, there was no point in living. If your hair wasn’t longer than your mum’s, you were a sissy. If you didn’t play Barbarian, you were an outcast.
Barbarian was probably the first one on one beat-em-up I ever played, long before Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. It doesn’t have the rosters of any of the 8-16bit console fighters, featuring instead the same pair of fighters in every fight, but it did have a variety of attacks, a sick sense of humour, and it was pretty vicious – that head-chopping spin move was an instant win – you didn’t have to wait until a certain amount of damage had been delivered, you could just whip it out at a moment’s notice. This of course led to a Peace Treaty between those who played the game – that this decapitation move was a War Atrocity and must never be used, or at least could only be employed once both fighters had lost a certain amount of energy – but, unfortunately this Treaty was frequently mocked and many heads were removed from shoulders in a moment of hilarity and tears. In a case of life imitating art, many real life fights erupted because of this, and a few times we received a beating from the parents due to screaming at each other.
There was a single player game on one side of the cassette, and the 2 player on the other side. If I’m honest, I really don’t remember playing the single player myself, and only have vague memories of my brother playing it. Looking at Wikipedia and World Of Spectrum I can see the plot saw a nameless Barbarian rampaging through a series of battles before facing the evil Wizard Drax in order to save a prehistoric page 3 model
Naturally, if you are going to go pouring through a Wasteland relieving swordsmen of their heads, you want to do it for a good reason – looking at the cover above, it seems there are two. Sorry. But the game was a huge success for Palace Software, and I’m guessing a lot of the success was down to the artwork for each system.
Before Barbarian, most game artwork featured in game-esque graphics, wacky writing fonts, or bizarre blocks zooming about. With Barbarian, artist Steve Brown basically said ‘lets tits this thing up’ and lo and behold, Maria Whittaker gave a legion of gamers their first power-up (erection) and Palace Software a tonne of money. Not that this was only a case of clever advertising, but the game itself garnered mostly positive reviews and remains a revered title to this day. It’s still fun to play over 20 years later. The movements of the fighters are smooth, the fighting is suitably ugly, the effects and music are great, and there is a heap of gore. The backgrounds are one of my favourite things about the game, eerie, freak show coloured wastes, like a wreath of corruption has fallen over a land, giving the sense of anything which lives in this place being sickly, dying, or outlandish. As previously mentioned, the humour gets high marks – my favourite moment being the little goblin creature who comes out to kick away a beheaded fighters skull and retrieve the carcass for Lord only knows what purpose.
So there you have it – one of the first and finest beat-em ups to grace the Spectrum. I’ll close by saying that I would highly recommend the game to any retro fiends, and give you a few links where better people than me give better information:
World Of Spectrum Barbarian Page with emulators, pics, and sounds galore: http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseekid.cgi?id=0000407
Youtube walk-through: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHHKDdrrfQ8
Youtube Title Music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-IlYYYQtgQ