During the early Eighties, gamers were going crazy for one-on-one fighters with a karate or kung-fu-based theme. Wanting to shake the genre up a little, Palace Software, added swords, blood and boobs into the mix. The result was Barbarian, one of the most controversial and fun fighters to ever appear on an 8-bit micro. Here we discover how this bloodthirsty brawler came to be.
The mid Eighties, fighting games were generally honourable fare. The rather forced gore of Mortal Kombat was over half a decade away, and small-screen gamers were still reeling from Melbourne House’s Way Of The Exploding Fist, with its realistic graphics and crunching gameplay. But at Palace, Steve Brown was planning to turn the genre on its head, forming a blueprint for games that followed and considerably upping the ante regarding on-screen violence on home computers. “After working on the two Cauldron games, I was a bit fed up with tiny on-screen characters. I wanted to come up with something meaty – the sort of game that I wanted to play, but that no one had done yet,” recalls Steve. “I was a big fan of the Conan novels, particularly the Savage Sword Of Conan comic magazines, which were full of hacking and slaying! I’d enjoyed Exploding Fist, and thought it’d be great to work on the ultimate sword-fighting game.”
Decapitate an opponent and a creepy goblin will kick their head offscreen.
Along with feeding into Steve’s personal tastes, Barbarian also met with Palace Software’s approval. Although beat-’em-ups were fast becoming commonplace – even old hat – Barbarian was a new twist on the genre, rather than more of the same, and Palace Software was always keen to work on something that hadn’t been done before.
Coming up with a plot to hang the game from came easily to Steve. It centres around the evil sorcerer Drax, who swore to wreak doom on the people of the jewelled city unless Princess Mariana was delivered to him. His sole caveat: she will be freed if a champion can be found who’s able to defeat Drax’s guardians. All is lost until an unknown warrior appears from the forgotten wastelands of the north… It’s all pretty cheesy and clichéd, but, as Steve says, that’s part of the game’s charm. “The story is just your basic sword and sorcery riff: take a princess, an evil wizard, a disgusting henchman, and so on, and the same is true of the character design – it’s all very Conanesque.”
However, Conan media did more than inform the game’s backstory and look – it also directly influenced the most important aspect of Barbarian: the combat moves. “Being a big Conan fan, I had a pretty good idea of which sword-fighting moves would be cool in a game,” says Steve. Wanting the gameplay to look and feel as realistic as possible, Steve asked his girlfriend’s father to fashion some wooden swords. Steve then roped in assistant animator Gary Carr, and the pair of them started practising like crazy in front of a video camera until they got the moves right: “We both got pretty banged up, but we actually learned how to do everything that Schwarzenegger did in the movie, including the ‘web of death’, where the sword is twirled behind the barbarian’s back!” In addition to this great-looking attack, standard ‘swiping’ moves are on offer, along with a powerful overhead chop.
The controversial cover art. And yes, that’s Wolf from Gladiators on the right.
In a nod to Exploding Fist’s success in combining offence and defence, several blocking moves were also integrated, adding a layer of strategy to the proceedings, rather than each battle deteriorating into a free-for-all hack-fest. However, perhaps the best inclusion – and certainly the most memorable – is Barbarian’s flying neck chop (see ‘Off with his head!’), a move that made the devastation felt upon mastering Exploding Fist’s flying kick seem weedy and tame by comparison.
With the moves decided on and plenty of reference material now available – albeit reference of designers jumping around, fighting with wooden swords, rather than actual barbarians doing their thing – Steve got to work tracing key poses and using them as the basis for the barbarian’s animation frames on the computer. For Steve, this process was one of the real highlights of working on Barbarian: “I’ve so many good memories of working on that game, but the best were learning the sword-fighting moves with Gary and then seeing them come to life in the game – that was magic!” However, like any good fighting game, just having a selection of interesting moves isn’t enough – as with Melbourne House’s Exploding Fist, it was essential that Barbarian’s control method be intuitive, rather than forcing gamers to regularly consult the manual; therefore, great care was taken when deciding on each move’s position on the joystick. Without the fire button being pressed, the barbarian has defensive moves at his disposal (jump, crouch, roll, and two blocking positions with the sword, to protect his head and body); with the fire button used, six offensive sword attacks are on offer, along with two close-combat body moves – a kick and a meaty head-butt.
“Next, we got the collision detection up and running,” says Steve. “This enabled us to test the game in two-player mode to make sure it all worked and – most importantly – that it was fun.” The main challenge to the team from that point on was in coming up with a system of responses for the computer opponent that, in Steve’s words, “didn’t suck and that wasn’t totally predictable”. With the majority of games in the genre falling foul to the ‘unbeatable move syndrome’, this level of unpredictability was of paramount importance, in order to give the game longevity and challenge. In practice, it works well, and even low-level opponents often have tricks up their sleeves to dispatch complacent or over-confident adversaries.
It seems basic now, but this was quite shocking back in the day.
With the game’s AI working, Barbarian’s ‘combat practice’ mode was complete, providing a two-player challenge and a means for solo players to hone their skills before taking on the game’s single-player quest. This involves venturing deep into Drax’s stronghold, taking on his guardians, each one more ruthless than the last, while he and the princess look on. The challenge ends with the barbarian taking on Drax himself, the sorcerer spewing magic from his fingers. Your timing has to be spot on for you to escape death and rescue the princess from his clutches.
To complete the production, the now sadly departed musical maestro Richard Joseph was drafted in and given the task of composing a suitably epic score for what was fast becoming a filmic 8-bit experience. “Richard, as always, did a fantastic job,” remembers Steve. “As a starting point, we sat down and I played him two movies that I thought had the right feel: a fab old film from 1963 about Mayans fighting native American Indians, Kings Of The Sun. The film had a great rhythmic battle soundtrack that had always stuck in my head. We also, of course, watched Conan The Barbarian! Richard then went away, worked his magic, and returned with music and effects that were spot-on!”
Barbarian came out on numerous home systems. Here’s the Spectrum version.
Aside from the usual bunch of do-gooder whiners (see ‘A wolf in no clothing’), Barbarian met with an enthusiastic response from most, and many gamers were excited about seeing a company doing something different, rather than releasing yet another game of people wearing pyjamas and kicking each other in the face. “Yeah! All the thrills and spills of a nightmarish abattoir – blood spurts, decapitated heads flying around, guts and gore and hunchback cripples dragging away corpses – this is what I call a real hack-’em-up,” enthused Julian Rignall, in Zzap!64’s July 1987 issue, where the game narrowly missed a Sizzler! award. Commodore User was a little more generous, with Eugene Lacey noting: “Although it’s a bit sick, it has to be said Barbarian is a real winner,” and duly awarding the game a Screen Star. Elsewhere, a C+VG Hit softened the blow from the game narrowly failing to Smash in Crash, and a year later, the Amiga version, complete with smoother animation, faster gameplay and some neat sampled sound effects, had Gary Penn positively frothing at the mouth in the Amiga section of Commodore User.
None of this acclaim stunned Palace at the time, though. “I don’t mean to sound big-headed, but I knew Barbarian was a good game, and I wasn’t surprised that it did very well,” claims Steve. “I’ve always had very good commercial instincts, and I made the game that I wanted to play. The cover art and gore were totally in keeping with the concept and all part of the fun. It’s exactly what I would have wanted as a punter!”