In those dark ancient times all business was settled with brute force, magic and steel. In our story, however, steel must ultimately prevail. Drax the evil sorcerer threatens to cast a terrible curse upon the people of Jewelled City unless they trade Princess Mariana for their well-being. Without further ado they complied. "Well, that was boring!" - Drax thought. And so he came up with a new bargain for his sordid amusement: the one who defeats a number of his best warriors shall have the Princess back. Many brave souls have perished in vain and, like in all such tales, when all hope seemed lost this champion came...
By all means, this game needs little introduction to at least all Spectrum and C64 veterans. Barbarian is known to be one of the best-selling titles across a number of platforms and without a slightest doubt one of the 80's best fighting games ever made. Solid sprites and smooth animation, unprecedented at the time realistic sword-wielding action and tantalizing elements of violence and gore were its main selling points. The game looked best on Amiga, though, mostly owing to improved palette and audio. C64 and CPC ports as usual, lacked in detail while Spectrum provided optimum experience with regard to both graphics and 8-bit capabilities.
The game's Sword & Sorcery theme was evidently inspired by the 80's cult action/fantasy movie Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. There isn't much magic here though, not in combat at any rate, but the formal presence of adverse magic user seems to justify it to an extent. As was clear from the intro, to beat the game you need to prevail a certain times over in a battle against... your clone. No wait, this is someone else wearing a spooky devil mask! It can't be another you!
Jokes aside, this is, in fact, one of the major reasons as to why I prefer Spectrum version over the rest (aside from the fact I only ever played it on Spectrum, of course), because only here you can really tell who is who and your adversary does indeed look dreadful and sinister, whereas other ports used different armor or skin color (your enemy being mulatto or black) to distinguish the characters, which in my opinion is inadequate at least from pure aesthetical point of view. I also wonder how people of color would assess it...
Why is it different on Spectrum? Elementary, my dear Watson. Due to limitations in certain graphical modes and the ensuing side-effect known as attribute clash this and many other games on Spectrum, specifically those with a lot of details and lush, picturesque backgrounds were made virtually monochrome, that is using one color for both sprites and backgrounds to prevent unwanted rectangular artifacts. So how do you distinguish between two identical characters in this situation? That's right, you put a mask on one of them, which as a result made this game more attractive (let alone a lot less racist), although, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the true goal.
Now for the gameplay. Arnold... I mean, the protagonist is quite a virtuoso with his broadsword and can do a few more tricks than one would normally expect. Though, as usual, a good deal of those stunts are hardly urgent and mostly either semiuseful or completely redundant. It's ironic that a couple of your auxiliary non-sword attacks like headbutts and kicks are often more successfully delivered, but are less efficacious, however. You can defend yourself in a variety of ways, but it won't be very helpful as it requires extremely quick reaction, which only your opponent seems to have mastered. Funnily enough, he is still subject to your supremacy.
There is also this drop'n'roll trip, which is a quasi-attack aimed to disable your enemy for a few seconds and is inevitably and progressively abused as you face new and leveled-up enemies. Turns out there is no better defense tactics against your opponent whose reaction is 10 times better than yours. However, it doesn't really impact your enemy's health or yours for that matter, which is really good news. Also, when rolling you are pretty invulnerable to attacks, so you can resort to it at all times until you catch your enemy off guard and strike a blow.
While the above is a good accomodation technique, this is yet another sad case of cool-but-f*ck-it set of moves, so you are bound to stick with just a few of them, namely headbutts, kicks, rolling and one type of sword attack, which can be anything, really. You're probably thinking wouldn't it be a little better if you could at least block all your enemy's attacks by simply stepping back? Unfortunately, it was just a bit too early for such profound novelty *sarcasm*.
The house special here is the twisting decapitating blow, which is the most tempting of all as it can finish the fight immediately as well as put up a good show. The head of your opponent drops to the ground and in a few seconds an ugly small goblin appears from either left or right part of the screen, drags the headless body while kicking the head along the way. This move is a pure gimmick, because it works only with the first few opponents with only just a little bit of luck. As you defeat your enemies further they get smarter and will no longer fall for it so easily. So, constantly pushing your luck like that will only prove to be counterproductive and ensure your death in the long run.
Finally, when all your enemies are defeated you are to face Drax himself. Surprised? Hold on a second, that wasn't in the terms and conditions! Oh, this isn't a real fight, all you have to do is get real close to him while dodging his fireballs or whatever it is that he's casting. Not that I ever got that far in the game, but something tells me those can smite you in an instant, therefore a little bit of reaction is necessary here. Having reached Drax your character autoslays him and the Princess is all yours. Enjoy!
Incidentally, this is one of those games that shouldn't be played with a joystick unless you want to break that thing in no time. I've never mentioned this before in my reviews, probably because it's irrelevant for emulator users, but it is pretty actual for genuine Spectrum owners as it was in my days of glory. Whenever you are faced with controls involving combinations like RIGHT+UP or LEFT+DOWN joystick is a bad, BAD idea, because it is simply not designed to work that way. This, of course, should be played with a keyboard or gamepad. Speaking of the latter, I used gamepads from Sega Master System with my Spectrum, which turned out to be fully compatible!
Notwithstanding some of the obvious shortcomings, which have become habitual not only for Spectrum, but pretty much all 8-bit family computers, this is one exceptional and spectacular game as it displays a pretty bold attempt to imitate fencing at its best let alone amazing graphics, which at the time had received 5 stars. Yes, controls aren't really well thought out. Yes, you cant't have a rapid reaction next to telepathy, which may downgrade your experience to a cheesy action figure bout, but at least it offers you a freedom of choice. And if you're tired of the computer being too smart you can always quit the story mode and play with your friend instead.