Fantasy settings were really popular with beat ’em ups in providing plenty of reasons for hack ‘n slash, mass monster mashing. Capcom jumped all over the idea with The King of Dragons in 1991 and Knights of the Round very shortly thereafter in 1992. So when Irem jumped into arcades with Blade Master, which also came out in 1991, it was in really good company. At the same time, it also had to compete against both King Arthur’s Holy Grail quest and five classic tabletop classes on the hunt for a big dragon.
Irem was the Japanese company behind Kung-Fu Master in 1984 (distributed by Data East) and later, the pixel-pretty shmup R-Type in 1987 (which Nintendo handled in the arcades). One of the things they were most notable for (aside from their amazing April Fools jokes) was the quality of their art direction over the years.
Going from the flat, 2D look of Kung-Fu Master to the amazing art that would be seen in Blade Master also involved improving the hardware that their games ran on in the arcade. In 1991, their newest system board, the M-92, was also introduced boasting NEC’s 16-bit V33 which was equivalent to an Intel 80286 CPU in terms of performance. It also supported NEC’s V30, also 16-bit, which was compatible with the Intel 8086. For sound, Irem stuck to a reliable standard of the day – Yamaha – and their very popular YM2151 which provided sound for games such as 1987’s Double Dragon to most anything running on Capcom’s CPS-1 arcade board such as Street Fighter II. You can check out a picture of the M92 and a list of games that ran on it over at System 16.
Blade Master (or Cross Blades as it was called in Japan) is a hack ‘n slash beat ’em up hybrid similar to Knights of the Round in that the heroes do their fighting with weapons like swords and spears. It stars two protagonists — Roy and Arnold — who head off to rescue a kidnapped maiden (again) taken away by nefarious evil to a far away castle. It features two player co-op and spans over seven lengthy stages of giant spiders, hawk warriors, two-legged ovens, and boss fights.
Irem’s artists did a great job with the sprite animations and the detail worked into every character and backdrop here — especially with some of the bosses like a giant squid or a lightning breathing alienesque type monster. There’s nothing here to tell us just when or where exactly this is taking place — it could be some kind of post apocalyptic vision of the world or a completely different planet entirely — but even compared to Capcom’s stuff at the time, Irem’s attention to hyper-detailed pixels holds up really well especially when some big monsters are covered in battle damage.
Both warriors also had their strengths and weaknesses — Roy was fast and dual wielded two swords but had only an okay range, Arnold was a bit slower but his spear gave him fantastic range while allowing him to bash close enemies with a ball and chain. There were no desperation attacks, however, or much else to their fighting repertoire other than the basics. Continues started you off from where you died, however, and it kept your score when you did. And what is something that isn’t too uncommon, when the game ended, so did your play time much like in a few of Capcom’s own beat ’em ups.
Where it doesn’t hold up too well is when it comes to the actual gameplay which is pretty standard stuff. Capcom’s strengths were in being able to mix up encounters with a few surprises whether they were an avalanche of barrels or enemy dialogue threatening the player, invent great bosses, and tweak the formula by introducing new facets that help to separate the really good ones from the could-have-beens. With Blade Master, it looked and sounded great, but that didn’t extend as far into the actual gameplay mechanics.
Stage backdrops didn’t have a whole lot of variety to them and enemies tended to recycle themselves right up to the bosses, particularly the giant knight bosses. Fighting one was tough. Then at the end of the another stage, you have to fight two. Then three at once just in case you couldn’t get enough of them. None of the bosses also seemed to be as excited to fight you as you might have been to fight them — there’s not a whole lot of range to their attacks. But they looked great! Pickup extras for points and healing weren’t that exciting, either.
Compared to its peers such as Knights of the Round and 1989’s Golden Axe, both of which had mounts and magic attacks, or the multiple classes of The King of Dragons, Blade Master seemed like basic stuff in 1991…at least gameplay wise. It wasn’t ported to anything else outside of the arcade for years unlike Irem’s much more popular titles such as R-Type, but it eventually found its way to the Irem Arcade Hits collection by DotEmu released in 2010. You can find it available at several places such as Amazon for the PC rounding up 18 of their biggest hits, so if you ever had the itch to fight birdmen or fly on the back of a giant fly, Blade Master still awaits.