To celebrate this momentous occasion, and to celebrate this fact that it's my actual birthday tomorrow, I've decided to give the VGJunk treatment to a game I genuinely love: Capcom's 1991 rightwise-born-King-of-England-em-up Knights of the Round!
That's the Knights of the Round Table of course, Britain's premier squad of brave and noble knights headed by King Arthur himself. Can I get through this whole article without referring to Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Well, I just mentioned it so I guess not. Knights of the Round is a side-scrolling beat-em-up with a medieval twist, Final Fight with plate armour and horses, the mean city streets replaced by castles and battlefields. Yet hidden beneath this familiar facade is a brawler with a little more depth to it than you might expect.
The game begins, as all good Arthurian myths should, with Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. I love the way he's posing in this shot, pointing at Excalibur's blade like a QVC host trying to sell you on its incomparable sharpness and ability to legitimise monarchies. Merlin, who has been waiting nearby with a camera and filming the unsuccessful attempts of the other knights so he can sell the footage to You've Been Framed, sees Arthur's feat and jumps out of the bushes to task him with a holy quest. Arthur must seek the Holy Grail itself!
What Merlin actually says is "Only the Holy Grail can release this world from attain the chaos, you should be able to find it because you were able to sacred sword. Help eachother and find it, brave men!!" I know Merlin's little speech sounds like he's reading from cue cards that aren't in the right order, but the guy's about seven hundred years old so we'll give him a break.
Just to recap: a young knight finds a sword in the woods, and an old man appears and tells him to find Jesus' dinner cup with no indication what the cup looks like or where it might be - but it'll be fine, Arthur should be able to find it because OOooOOoo, sacred swoooord!
Arthur is not alone on his quest, however. He's got a bunch of knights at his disposal, so he decides to bring along Perceval and Lancelot. Bringing Lancelot seems an especially shrewd move: if Arthur's going to be away for a while, perhaps the duty of looking after Guinevere should fall to someone a little less adulter-y. But what talents do these warriors bring to the battlefield?
Arthur possesses average skills in all areas, a trait often associated with kings and other leaders of men. Excalibur has truly chosen the most generic man in England to wield its awesome power. According to the arcade flyer, Arthur is a mere seventeen tears old, but I've seen the kind of scraggly beards that are the best seventeen-year-old boys can manage and Arthur's facial hair is far too grand for that. Given medieval life expectancy rates, I'd say he has another seven years left, ten at the most.
Lancelot favours speed over power and flowing golden locks over a sensible haircut. He received his martial training in the Far East, and as a result he fights with a scimitar. He also looks a lot like an early design concept for Street Fighter II's Vega, so perhaps that's here his Richard Gere-ian good looks stem from.
Perceval (or Parceval, as the game sometime feels like spelling it) is a young man with a pure, chaste heart and the body of a shaven bear. He's the heavy-hitter of the group, although he makes a mockery of his low speed rating by being the only character that can dash by double tapping the stick. He carries an axe instead of a sword, because what's the point in using a sword if your teammate is using Excalibur? You're only going to ever feel second best.
And so, our three brave knights set out on a quest to find the grail which they have never seen and have no clue where to find. You have to feel some sympathy for that poor soldier on the right; he can't be any more than fifteen. Join our army, they said. Ransack some villages, it'll be fun. Sure you'll end up in a pauper's grave before your testicles have fully descended, but these are called the Dark Ages for a reason, kid.
If you've ever played Final Fight (or any side-scrolling brawler of this vintage, really) you'll know what to expect in terms of gameplay. It's a two-button system, one to attack and one to jump. Pressing them both together performs a health-draining desperation attacks that knocks down any enemies nearby. Hitting the same enemy a few times with your normal attack will result in a multi-hit combo and why am I explaining this, you know how it works - travel through the lands, cutting down anyone who stands in you path without so much as a second though even if you should possibly be asking them some questions like "who are you?" and "where am I?" and "have you seen the Holy Grail anywhere?"
This first stage is apparently the "village on fire", but the only fire you see is in the distance. I guess "village two miles south-east of the village on fire" just didn't roll off the tongue easily enough. It's a gentle introduction to Knights of the Round, with the bulk of your opposition being made up of the almost-defenceless Soldier enemies, hapless youths with quartered jerkins and early-onset hunchback issues.
It's not long before the first boss appears and single-handedly kicks the stuffing out of a bunch of your allied soldiers.
I love Scorn. Just look at his jaunty pose, his haughty manner, his helmet that looks like an upside-down bucket. He may be eight feet tall and a dab hand with a halberd, but he's got exactly the same "oh ho ho!" laugh as every aristocratic female villain in every anime ever, so it's hard to see him as a viable threat. And so it proves, because with careful application of hit and run tactics Scorn is easily defeated by the soon-to-be-King of All Britons.
This all seems very simple, right? So far, so run-of-the-mill. Well, it sort of is, but KotR has a few tricks up its sleeve that makes it stand out. First and foremost, you can block. I doesn't sound like much, and you'd take it for granted in most modern games, but for an early nineties beat-em-up it's a relatively rare feature. It does take some getting used to, though - there's no specific block button, and instead you have to press attack and then a split-second later hold the joystick in the opposite direction to the one you're facing in. It's a bit of timing that does take some getting used to, and for a while you'll probably be like me and end up turning around and attacking behind you every five seconds like an idiot trying to swat an imaginary bee rather than performing a block.
The block is a little more complicated than simply absorbing damage, however. For starters, you can't block indefinitely: hold your block for too long and you'll be temporarily stunned. The other, and very important thing, is that after a successful block you get a brief period of invincibility. Mastering and utilizing this block-invincibility power is vital if you want to get anywhere in KotR without using enough credits to wear the cabinet's coin slot down to nothing.
This is the second stage, by the way - the "Confused Fight". It's an apt description, as I have no idea who all these soldiers are and why they're trying to kill young Arthur.
I mean, here Arthur has become so confused by the sudden appearance of a portly knight on horseback that he's attempting to leap off the edge of the screen. Come back, Arthur! Use you kingly power to do what all good monarchs do and demand some taxes! In this case, I suggest a horse tax.
Yep, you can mount a mighty steed and attack your enemies from horesback. You can also tell the horse to jump on people, which if you ask me is a perfectly valid use of Arthur's obvious equestrian talents. You can even command the horse to become a sort of living missile and charge forward, trampling any enemies in its path before disappearing off the screen. I seem to get my ass handed to me whenever I use the horse, so this is generally the best course of action. I'm a chivalrous man, the least I can do is butcher these men face-to-face.
Speaking of these men's faces, the Buster Knights (the stout fellows on the left) look rather like the Chaos Warriors from Games Workshop's Heroquest board game:
These guys are far more irritating than Heroquest's bloodthirsty warriors, though, because they tend to wait until you're fighting a different enemy, creep up behind you, and then smack you in the back of the head. So much for the age of chivalry.
Stage two's boss wanted a horse, but he couldn't find one so he has to make do with a powder-blue My Little Pony. This is Braford the Sword Master, champion of double-bladed fencing and possessor of a blue horse that is, like, totally manly. Once you've knocked him off his mount he proves to be a frustratingly gymnastic opponent, diving around the stage despite wearing a full set of plate armour and carrying two swords. Braford must have thighs like hydraulic rams but even he cannot stand for long against the power of Excalibur, especially when you get him trapped in a loop by using your strong attack (press attack followed immediately by holding the joystick forward) over and over again.
Onto stage three, and you might have noticed that Arthur is looking a little... different. More regal, more powerful, more encased in metal than he did when his quest began. That's because KotR incorporates an RPG-style level-up system. Collect enough points and your character levels up, increasing their stats and more importantly changing their sprites to look cooler; Arthur cuts a far more imposing figure now that he looks like he could withstand the impact of a small truck.
Obviously, this means you'll be wanting to maximise your score so that Arthur and friends can level up and become ever stronger. You can collect points in the usual beat-em-up ways - bashing enemies, collecting treasure and finishing stages as fast as possible. However, if you really want to rack up the points you'll have to do a little more planning. For instance, killing several of the same type of enemies in a row nets you extra points for each kill in the chain, so you'll want to plan your attacks a little differently. Treasure usually comes in chests, which actually yield more points when you hit them and their contents spread over the floor that if you pick them up in their (you'd think much more convenient) boxed form. Food items restore your health unless you have full health, in which case they give you points - so do you pick up the food to gain points, or do you leave it in case you take some damage? It's hardly a chess-like mental exercise which requires meticulous planning and penetrating foresight, but the need to collect as many points as you can does give KotR an interesting depth not often seen in beat-em-ups of this time.
"And verily, Arthur thus dreweth the sworde from the stone, gather'd about him his moste loyal knights, wander'd into yon castle in search of the True Grail and was attacked by ruddy tigers, of all thyngs!"
Unless this game is based on the recollections of Arthur himself and he's really exaggerating an encounter with the castle's pet cats, stage three sees the first appearance of the deadly, and apparently very common in medieval England, evil tigers. Not just any tigers, though - these are Mad Tigers. Capcom decided that a normal, sane tiger was not enough of a threat and that only a tiger with mental health issues would truly strike fear into the heart of the player. The meeting when Capcom named these guys must have been a fun one: "I like what you've done with these tiger enemies, but there's something missing. What is their raison d'etre, where is their motivation? What's that? They're insane? I love it! We'll go with that. Just one more thing on the tiger front: I want to make sure everyone knows that these are male tigers, so please go ahead and draw a great big pair of fuzzy knackers on them, okay? Thanks."
Sadly there is no listing in the credits for "Tiger gonad artist" so I can't tell you who is responsible for this.
Responsible for releasing the tigers is the lord of this castle, Arlon the Silver Emperor. A nice modest touch, there - "Golden Emperor" is a terribly crass name and it also makes you sound like a Chinese takeaway. Arlon is the first properly challenging opponent in the game, mostly because he spends so much of the fight jumping into the air and creating a powerful blast of psychokinetic energy whenever he lands. Plus he's got spiked knuckledusters for when things get a bit tasty, y'know what I mean? Yeah, for some reason I can't see Arlon as anything other than a Guy Ritchie-style Cockney gangster. In a film adaptation of Knights of the Round, Arlon would be played Ray Winstone (unless it's straight to DVD, in which case Danny Dyer is the more likely star). If you've got a good handle on the blocking mechanics you should be okay, though, and with the Silver Emperor deposed you can head to stage four.
It's a short stage that takes place a knight's tournament - I think capturing the flag is supposed to be a playful game, but it's hard to tell when I'm using Perceval and my axe is destroying countless men beneath its blood-soaked blade. Of course, our heroes reclaim the flag and there is much good cheer, lusty cries of victory, etc., etc...
And then all the soldiers are killed in a hail of arrows. Suddenly Perceval's decision to only wear heavy armour but only on one side of his body doesn't seem so foolish, as long as he remembers to keep the armoured side pointing at the arrows.
If you ever wanted an illustration of the class system in Britain and the struggles of the working class, just take a look at those nobles in the background as they stand idly by and impassively watch hundreds of men killed before their eyes. A couple of these hideous toffs even have their arms folded, as though the carnage unfolding before them was no more interesting than watching a sub-par mime pretending to be a statue in a busy city-center shopping district. What a bunch of absolute bastards.
Level boss and arrow-blizzard orchestrator Phantom the Nightshade soon appears. After the cruel indifference of the nobility it's hard for him to seem like a complete prick, but he really goes above and beyond with his multiple-personality bullshit and he just about manages to engender even more hatred in me. Congratulations, Phantom. The best way to describe Phantom is to say he's KotR's version of Final Fight's Rolento. He dashes around the screen faster than you can keep up, throwing firebombs and (for some reason) meat cleavers at you. Then he really makes a play for the title of "Most Irritating Dickweed" by producing two clones of himself. On the plus side, he doesn't have much health and if you get lucky you can trap his clones in one place long enough to beat them all down. Sadly Phantom isn't killed but flounces away to fight another day, so you can be sure we'll be seeing him again later. For now though, let's press on to stage five.
That horse is bright orange. That is not a colour that horses should be, and judging by the horse's stoic yet faintly disappointed expression he knows it too. This stage is called "Expedition", so I would guess that Arthur has finally noticed his utter lack of information on the Grail's whereabouts and has taken to just walking around the countryside, beating up the hordes of soldier who lurk wherever he goes and even smiting the occasional falcon.
Before any bird-lovers send me hate-hail about my barbaric treatment of these majestic birds of prey, I'd like to draw your attention to the enemy status bar at the bottom of the screen. See? These are Bad Falcons. Mean, vicious killers with a hard glint in their eyes and a knife clasped in their talons. These falcons are so bad they have no chance for rehabilitation, and they keep throwing knives at me so I feel that I'm well within my rights to hit them with my sword.
This is Balbars the Hammer, not named as an ironic joke like calling a big guy "Tiny" but because he's got a fucking massive hammer. He's the stage's boss, and by God he looks like a boss - there's just something about carrying a hammer the size of a Fiat Uno that rules you out of "cannon fodder" territory. Balbars is yet another boss who likes to defy the conventions of medieval warfare by jumping around like a child with a space hopper, trying to crush you beneath his vast weight. It's a tactic that works well for him, as does waiting until you attack and then grabbing you by the throat. He's not a complicated man. If you eventually manage to wear down his considerable health bar, you can move on to stage six: "Knights in a Strange Land."
Lancelot has upgraded to gold armour, blue jeans and a sword that is more hilt than blade. Even that horse is taken aback by his bold sartorial choices. This stage is one of the longer ones, and it's jam-packed with hordes of soldiers that really do not want Arthur and his knights to get their hands on the Grail. Everything's coming together nicely now, and KotR is reminding me of the reasons I like it so much - the tough, semi-strategic battles that are much more fun now that I've got the timing for the block and heavy attack commands down, the charming graphics and music, and the straight-faced yet off-kilter feel of the whole the game.
This is what I mean by that last comment: stage six's boss is a samurai warrior called Blood Armor Muramasa. I know this stage is called "Knights in a Strange Land", but did Arthur really travel all the way to Japan in search of the Holy Grail? Or is there a lone samurai roaming the wheat-fields of southern England? Either way, it demonstrates why I love KotR in particular and this kind of arcade game in general - the chance to see something like a James Bond movie or an American buddy-cop blockbuster or even the romantic myths of European chivalry through the technicolour Japanese prism that is the arcade videogame, where King Arthur is seventeen, has a beard like a hillbilly mountain-man and uses the legendary blade Excalibur to beat up tigers. As you can probably tell, I'm not really one for realism in my videogames.
As for Muramasa, he's not as tough to beat as Balbars although he can summon an infuriating rain of fireballs at the drop of a hat. Still, I managed to beat him fairly easily just by staying on top of him using the jumping attack. There's no need to pose over his defeated body though, Arthur. Show a little restraint.
With the local samurai defeated, it's time for the final stage as our heroes battle through a castle filled with enemies, spiked balls and the occasional horse. You should know the drill by now, and with grim determination Arthur stabs his way through the chaos of the battlefield, aided by his new and improved golden armour. He's not even the king yet, and already he's spending taxes on solid gold armour and capes instead of shoring up Britain's crumbling road network or something. This is what happens when you choose your leaders by sword-lifting prowess, people.
There's a big robot to fight, because why not? We've had samurai and robots, all we need now is a pirate to complete the set. Phantom reappears once the robot is dealt with, but he's much less of a challenge than the first time around because he's got a smaller health bar. I guess he hadn't quite healed from the injuries I gave him the first time we met.
We're nearly there now - the power and experience coursing through Perceval's veins has caused him to age twenty years and lose all his hair. The fact that Perceval's strength seems to be directly linked to the length of his hair gives me hope for my own receding hairline, although no matter how strong I become I don't think I'll be adopting Percy's habit of only wearing armour on one side of his body. Surely that'd throw you off balance in a combat situation? Luckily it doesn't affect Percival that way, and he can casually ram his way through the assembled throng until he's almost at the final boss. But who could this boss be? What manner of man or beast dwells within this castle, and most importantly do they know where the Holy Grail is because I don't have a goddamn clue?
Well wonder no more, because here is Garibaldi, your final opponent. I don't know if he's named after the founding father of modern Italy or the biscuit, but I do know that he's an absolute pain in the rear to fight. If you haven't mastered blocking by the time you reach this fight, you will die. You will die quickly and often, because Garibaldi has a wide array of powerful projectile attacks, the ability to interrupt your attacks seemingly at will, and a ruddy great mace for cracking skulls. You might also have noticed that his sprite is a slightly-reworked palette swap of Arlon the Silver Emperor, and once he's off his horse he shares Arlon's fondness for the advanced fencing tactic known as the "jumping cannonball."
This is a long, occasionally frustrating fight that is the only part of KotR that I'm not too fond of. Even then, it's still got some nice touches - for example, when Garibaldi dismounts he takes off his golden helm and throws it aside, letting you pick it up for extra points and adding mid-battle looting to the list of Arthur's misdeeds. If he does find the Grail, isn't he going to melt or explode or something when he picks it up? Maybe that's what Excalibur's for, he can use it like a barbecue fork to safely manipulate the Grail.
After a gruelling battle filled with well-timed blocking and countless projectile attacks that'll make you scream "horseshit!" at the screen, Garibaldi is dead and his dream of a unified Italy will go unrealised.
Hey, would you look at that: he did have the Holy Grail! Well that's handy, I was running out of castles to storm. Arthur managed to sneak in one last level up at the end of the game, and his armour has changed from soft, malleable gold to (hopefully) cold hard steel because wearing gold armour is a deeply stupid idea.
Back at Merlin's woodland hideaway, the knights gather to decide what should be done with the power of the Grail. There are actually a few different bits of dialogue you can get here, depending on who deals the mortal blow to Garibaldi and how long you wait to press the "pick up the Grail" button - if you hesitate, Merlin badgers Arthur until he grudgingly accepts the Grail with an "ugh, fine, I suppose I'll be king then" attitude. Everyone vows to use the power of the Grail to spread peace throughout the land, although the details of this are left a little hazy. The Grail just somehow makes everything better, alright? That's all you need to know, serf - now get back to harvesting the king's turnips.
Knights of the Round isn't the best side-scrolling beat-em-up ever. Hell, it's not even Capcom's best in the genre, but I still hold it in slightly higher regard than perhaps it deserves. It's definitely a good game: the graphics are smooth, interesting and just over-the-top enough, and Isao Abe's soundtrack is very good while sounding unlike any other beat-em-up soundtrack I can think of.
Best of all there's the unusually deep combat and level-up systems. As I've mentioned before, the side-scrolling fighter was a genre so heavily mired in its own clichés that a game only needed a small amount of well-implemented new features to stand out from the crowd, and the additions featured in KotR definitely accomplish that. I think what I love most about it, though, is that it's got charm. It's a vague thing to praise, I know, but KotR is filled with little touches and unexpected moments that always make me smile: things like Scorn's dorky laugh, or the Fat Men's recovery animation where they haul themselves to their feet using their halberd as a crutch, or the fact that those tigers are mad as hell. In the end, it's a well above average side-scrolling beat-em-up that came wrapped in just the right packaging for my tastes. Don't just take my word for it: give Knights of the Round a go and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. There was a SNES port, although it does seem quite hard to find. I'm sure you can figure out a way to play it, though; just remember to block, and if you can't block, throw a horse at the problem.
And that, my friends, is the end of VGJunk's second year. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it, and I'll be heading into the third year of this nonsense sometime soon. Thank you all for coming!