Video games, like many entertainment mediums, are no strangers to controversy. But one thing that controversy has sometimes done, however, is provide free press for the material in question which is exactly what the furor over Palace Software’s Barbarian created in 1987. It also helped that the game actually pretty good.
To promote the game, and give it a unique look, Palace decided on using live, scantily clad, models for that barbarian vibe. The ad above ran in the UK that year with the same models used for the title’s cover art, something that incited cries of indecency and moral decrepitude that played no small part in the change of box art for North America when Epyx brought it over as “Death Sword”. Yet the game’s sales actually benefited from all of the attention making it Palace’s biggest hit.
With all of the fist shaking focused on the ad, little was paid to the violence in the game that included a decapitation killing move and a clean-up imp that kicked the head across the screen before dragging away the body for the next victim. Well, almost no one had paid attention. Germany banned it until cosmetic changes were made to the blood to make it green — the same kind of treatment that id’s Wolfenstein received when it came to the SNES over there thanks to Nintendo’s family friendly focus.
But it also helped that the game was tremendously innovative. Palace Software’s Steve Brown filmed himself as an animation reference for the 16 moves he envisioned for the game, one of which was inspired by 1984’s Conan the Destroyer. They also wanted to use “big” character sprites — something that would require Palace’s coders to come up with new ways on how to draw them onscreen to make it work.
When it arrived, it was lauded for being both viciously brutal as well as being a challenging fighting game on computers. A single-player plot involving a kidnapped princess and the evil sorceror holding her was also worked in complete with a story introduced in the manual. The throwaway story cast players in the role of Gorth, son of the King of the Northlands, Toth. After a customary tale of woe, it’s up to players to take Gorth against the sorcerous Drax who has made himself overlord of the city.
Joysticks were required for this hack ‘n slay. It controlled everything from movement to crouches, rolls, and blocks. Used in conjunction with the fire button, it deadly moves like the “Flying Neck Chop” and the “Web of Death” were launched at foes. Swords clanged when they struck each other joined by grunts of pain on successful hits. Kicks knocked each other down for that breather right before you swung back with a keening edge of death.
Players had to face off in one-on-one combat against Drax’s barbarians, each one better than the last, until they killed them all or died trying. Scoring was also included complete with a roll for particularly good fighters to enter their initials into, arcade style.
In facing off against friends, players had a time limit of 90 seconds to get the job done. If both survived, however, a new round would start up with everyone’s health back up to full. The 2D, side-viewed arena battles took place on volcanic plains, forests, and even the bowels of Drax’s castle.
The game was ported to a wide number of PC platforms as well as finding its way over to North America courtesy of Epyx. It ended up on the Amstrad, the Commodore 64, DOS, the BBC Micro, the Atari ST, and the ZX Spectrum. The Amiga version was one of the best ports with great graphics and sound which included digitized voice samples.
Barbarian was a remarkable fighting game for its time in a market that didn’t see too many of these, especially not with the level of Conan-esque brutality that was worked in five years before Mortal Kombat brought in another season of protests which eventually led to the formation of the ESRB standard. It was a runaway success for Palace who would go on to create a sequel in 1988, Barbarian II aka Axe of Rage, and were planning a third game when the company was ultimately folded into the infamous Titus Software who canceled a number of its projects in 1991. Including Barbarian III.
Today, the games exist largely as abandonware floating around on the ‘net but is often remembered for daring to tweak a number of ears for its head lopping fatalities to its risque ad campaign. Yet like a number of other titles have done and continue to do today, dressed itself up in the same trailer used by film, television, and print. And for Palace Software, it proved to be a bet worth making.