In the early 90s, SNK started using the Neo Geo MVS (Multi Video System), a standardized arcade system requiring arcade operators to change only the cartridge a game was stored on if they wanted to bring in a new title without the costly route of buying an entire cabinet all over again or replacing the guts with new chips and/or PCBs.
Many players would also recognize it as the Neo Geo AES (Advanced Entertainment System), the home console version of the same hardware. SNK, however, didn’t slim down the essentials — the console and the carts were literally uncompromised. What you saw in the arcade was exactly what you got at home. Unfortunately, this also translated into being an extremely expensive option for gamers as carts commonly ran up a few hundred USD apiece.
But that wasn’t to say that the games weren’t worth it…at least in an arcade setting where you don’t have to spend that much in one sitting if you don’t want to. And SNK’s Neo Geo games had some of the biggest, loudest, and fanciest in the arcade with iconic titles such as Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown hitting the scene.
Now Alpha Denshi was an old hand in the arcade having started in 1980 involved in audio and telecom equipment before stepping into the arcade scene. After creating a reputation for themselves with a few more games, they’d even work with Sega on Champion Baseball and eventually teamed up with SNK as a developer in ’87, contributing ideas that would later help create the Neo Geo.
One of the games they created for the system was Crossed Swords which came out in 1990, the same year that the Neo Geo hardware had hit Japanese arcades. It’s a third-person hack ‘n slash with players starring as a lone knight (or knights in two-player co-op) traveling across seven stages filled with evil to reach and defeat the devil, Nausizz, in his castle. Co-op split the screen between the two players with one covering the left half and the other the right with plenty of enemies for both.
Basic gameplay was explained to the player at the start by a drill sergeant knight as an automated scene played out. The player controlled a knight whose back was facing the player along the bottom of the screen while enemies came at them from the front. The knight had a see-through wireframe body, much like what was seen in Nintendo’s Punch Out from ’84, allowing players to see the enemies better. Fighting consisted of successfully using the shield to block mid and high strikes from the enemy, temporarily stunning them, and then quickly countering. If a player’s timing was really good, they could even get in a hit while the enemy was getting ready with theirs.
A stamina system also determined how much damage your weapon could make. Holding up your shield, or simply not guarding, slowly replenished it while repeated strikes could keep it fired up at its peak before cooling off. Getting hit, though, knocked it down significantly, forcing players to find a balance between moving, shielding, and picking just the right movement to strike with maximum effect.
Players could also cast different kinds of magic depending on the kind of weapon they had. Some magic fired off a simple ball of magic while another spell could turn enemies into hopping scarecrows. You only had so many charges, but random power-up drops from enemies could replenish spent ones. There was also a “special” attack turning your knight into a spinning whirlwind of strikes, burning a little of your health in the process. On the down side, the same combo buttons can also activate a lame “repel” move.
RPG elements also included a health gauge made up of small bars. An experience point system upgraded your health by one half-bar for every level, filling out the rest of your health by the time you hit 11. Some enemies did relatively small damage while others in the later levels, especially those enemies with unblockable slashing attacks that just-don’t-stop, could tear your health bars down with brutal efficiency.
Each stage was huge often consisting of several scenes that slowly scrolled from left to right, were stills such as during a fight on a forest road, and sometimes offered branching ways to get to an objective. Will you go through the ammunition stores or food storage? Depending on which way you head, the mix of enemies could be easier — or harder. And at the start of each stage aside from the seventh and final one, players could also summon a merchant to spend some of that hard earned gold that occasionally drops from enemies for better weapons or just to restore their health with a giant hunk of meat.
There were quite a few enemies in the game ranging from armored rabbit-like foes to big, centipede dragons, winged demon knights, fish fighters, and flying eyeballs. Crossed Swords was also huge on palette swaps. Different colors told you just how tough the same enemy could be. Enemy knights started out as greenies and eventually came out in red, black, and blue. Most enemies were like this and “bosses” that once controlled the end of a particular section of a stage would quickly return a palette swap later or as themselves acting as a now “common” enemy. The game was big on this and is probably why it could tend to be so incredibly repetitive.
Crossed Swords can be an exciting hack ‘n slash adventure – the fighting can be challenging and fun, at least in the first few stages — but this is also a long game with no checkpoints other than having a deep pocket filled with quarters or tokens. A typical playthrough can last roughly an hour though players could opt to jump as far as the third stage on starting the game skipping ahead (but also miss out on potential gold and experience).
Some enemies can also be incredibly cheap with unblockable slashing attacks that often sees the player just sitting there and taking the punishment, especially in the later stages when these enemies start showing up more often. Add to the penalties against your stamina for when you get hit and it’s not unusual to feel as if the game were trying to kill players off through sheer attrition or numbing repetition.
There wasn’t a lot of story in Crossed Swords aside from a few text lines spoken by the bosses. The ending isn’t bad, though given how much players had to slog through, it’s up to them as to whether it was actually worth getting to. There’s no leaderboard, either, since there isn’t really a score other than in making it all the way to the end. Once you complete your quest, that’s it.
Crossed Swords also came home to the console version of the Neo Geo and eventually found its way to other platforms including the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2011 though apparently as a Japan-only release.
Alpha Denshi managed to find neat way at taking a bit of medieval action and turning elements of it into a grand adventure, though it could have used a bit more polish and a lot less palette swapping. It also had a number of neat ideas such as using a stamina bar, a huge emphasis on properly blocking and countering enemies, and a solid soundtrack and great effects backing the action. Crossed Swords might not have hacked and slashed its way through all of its problems, but it still had some of the right moves.