Where would the 80s have been without the writings of Robert E. Howard? In cinemas, John Milius’ 1982 adaptation of Howard’s macho pulp tales, Conan the Barbarian, prompted a wave of sword-swinging imitators, including The Beastmaster, Deathstalker, and Hawk the Slayer.
The sword-and-sorcery zeitgeist also crept into the video game realm, from the decidedly Conan-esque playable characters in the hits Gauntlet and Golden Axe to the muscle-bound adventurer in Taito’s fantasy-themed coin-op Rastan. But for computer owners in the 1980s, one Howard-inspired game stood out from the pack: Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, released by Palace Software in 1987.
A one-on-one fighting game with unusually smooth animation and a decent selection of moves, given its pre-Street Fighter II vintage, Barbarian – arguably more than any other game of its time – made you feel like a hero from the Hyborian age.
Admittedly, Barbarian received the lion’s share of its coverage because of its Frank Frazetta-inspired marketing, which saw Wolf out of TV’s Gladiator (or Michael Van Wijk, as he was then known) posing with a sword and loincloth next to barely-clad glamour model Maria Whittaker. But behind the parent-baiting cover art, there lurked a brawler that offered lots of fun, if not a huge amount of depth.
Barbarian marked something of a turning point for Palace Software, which had entered the software market three years earlier. An offshoot of independent film company the Palace Group, Palace Software’s dramatic debut was a tie-in game based on Sam Raimi’s controversial, gleefully violent horror The Evil Dead. The studio’s parent company had already released the movie in the UK in 1982 – complete with Graham Humphreys’ wonderfully lurid cover art – and the decision was made to create a video game to go with it (“The Evil Dead was Palace Video’s big product and we had the rights, so we thought, why not?” recalled Palace Software’s Peter Stone, according to the book Britsoft).
One of the very first licensed games of its type in the UK, The Evil Dead wasn’t exactly a classic (it iss essentially involved closing doors and windows before demons got into your log cabin), and even co-designer Peter Stone admits that it “needed better graphics and better gameplay.”
For their next game, Palace Software hired artist Steve Brown, whose ideas were pivotal to the fledgling studio’s next phase. It was Brown who came up with the concept behind Cauldron, a shooter-platformer hybrid featuring a witch. When that game enjoyed glowing reviews and an uptick in sales, Brown presented his next idea: a fighting game inspired by the fantasy movie Red Sonja, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and also Yie Ar Kung-Fu, Konami’s hit arcade fighting game.
“You know these fighting games?” Brown said at a pub meeting one day, “They’re okay, but the characters are too small. I really want a game with huge, huge characters – like, the whole screen.”
Determined to create the most convincing pixel warriors he could, Brown came up with a simple yet ingenious method of capturing live-action footage and using it as a reference. He filmed himself performing sword-fighting moves on videotape, and then, having laid pieces of clear plastic over his television screen, traced them, frame by frame.
The result was Barbarian, which featured some of the largest characters ever seen at the time. The game depicted a one-on-one sword fight to the death in an arena presided over by a villain named Drax. The moves were simple yet satisfying to execute: straight sword swings were accompanied by a kick and a head-butt (perfect for pushing your enemy back or getting out of a tight spot), and an over-head sword swing was good for gruesome blows to the head.
The most dramatic move, however, was a kind of spinning sword attack that looked like something straight out of Conan the Barbarian. While performing it made you vulnerable to attack, there was a reward for getting the timing of it just right: if your sword connected with your opponent’s neck, his head would fly off.
This meant that, in theory, you could forget about slowly chipping your enemy’s health down with several well-timed blows, and simply decapitate them with one grandstanding attack. Barbarian was, in short, the first fighting game in the world with a deadly finishing move, and predated the grisly spine-rippings and other executions in the headline-grabbing Mortal Kombat by several years.
Indeed, Barbarian’s controversy also prefigured Mortal Kombat’s, and it’s interesting to compare the public reactions to the game in Britain and Germany. In the UK, the outcry was largely reserved for Barbarian’s salacious advertising. In Germany, the game wound up in court for its excessive violence. At one point, the prosecution had to demonstrate the decapitation move, failed, and the case was thrown out. When the prosecution came back for round two, they brought a little kid with them who could actually play the game. He showed the jury the finishing move, and Barbarian was summarily banned. Unperturbed, Palace Software simply changed the color of the blood from red to green, and the game was cleared for release once again.
It could be argued that the decap-attack (as I’ve suddenly decided to call it) was a bit of a gimmick in an otherwise simple brawler. There is, after all, only one type of enemy to defeat over and over again until you face the evil Drax at the end of the game. But the risk-versus-reward nature of this special move completely changed the complexion of what could have been a fairly standard fighting game.
With practice, it became easy to blast through the first few bouts in seconds, but the enemy AI tightened up as the encounters went on and the severed heads piled up. Towards the end of the game, the decap-attack was often countered by a brutal sword or kick to the ribs. Or worse, your enemy would perform his own decap-attack at the same time and your head would end up bouncing along the arena floor.
(It’s worth mentioning an incidental gag here, which occurred at the end of every bout: the losing player would have their corpse dragged off the screen by a hunch-backed, green homunculus. If the loser happened to lose his head, the loathsome creature would unceremoniously kick it off the screen like a football.)
Unfortunately, Barbarian suffered from an affliction that plagued so many early fighting games: a weakness in the enemy AI meant that it was also easy to box your opponent in the corner and repeatedly whack them with kicks and sword swings until they finally succumbed. Once this was discovered, it became a relative breeze to get to Drax, who just fired balls of energy at you until you got close enough to stab him in the face. The ease of completion was a bit disappointing, but a two-player mode went some way to make up for it, and provided numerous hours of joystick button-bashing and competitive shouting.
Barbarian was far from perfect, and if it’s remembered at all, many will no doubt think of its box art and accompanying poster rather than the game itself. But for me, Barbarian had a bit of an x-factor about it. Even though its thrills were short-lived in terms of variety, it offered a level of satisfaction that was rare in fighting games of the period. You only have to compare it to something like Yie Ar Kung Fu or Kung Fu Master, which were fun but didn’t exactly feel visceral, to see the difference. When you head-butted an enemy or lopped their head off in Barbarian, it was enough to raise a cackle of macabre laughter, especially if you were aged about 10 or 11 at the time.
The only game that had the same gut-level impact was Way of the Exploding Fist, with its crunchy sound-effects and smooth animation (that kick to the nethers still brings a tear to the eye today). Certainly, Palace’s sequel 1988 titled Barbarian II: The Dungeon of Drax, didn’t manage to bring the same level of satisfaction. While it offered greater variety (it was a flick-screen brawler rather than a one-on-one fighter) and more Maria Whitaker on the cover, it felt a little tepid compared to its full-blooded predecessor.
Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, therefore, was far from big, and it was far from clever. But as Conan simulators went in the 1980s, it was undoubtedly a cut above the rest.