Today, I'm taking a look at American Action's 1986 Commodore 64 title Blood and Guts. That's a bold title, holding the promise of all manner of mystery and intrigue. Okay, so it only really promises two things, and the title screen of a mid-eighties computer game would never lie to me. Well, I suppose I did get burned by Way of the Exploding Fist, but that was a one-off.This is Blood and Guts, then, but what kind of game awaits beyond the loading screen? A primitive one-on-one fighting game? A top-down Gauntlet clone featuring gruesome dismemberment? No, it is not.
The subtitle is "Ancient Barbarian Games," which should inform you that Blood and Guts belongs in that densely-populated genre of Commodore 64 games known as the multi-event sports title. Yep, this is International Track & Field: Conan of Cimmeria Edition, it's Genghis Khan's Decathlon, it's sort of like Bad Cat if the titular Bad Cat was replaced by a host of large, shirtless men. If you've ever seen the Bad Cat loading screen, you'll know that this can only be an improvement.
And here come the large, shirtless men now, the four contestants who are bare of foot and pink of flesh enough to compete in these ancient barbarian games. This is the character select screen, and of the four it's Hawk who stands out as the obvious contender - he's mean, he's moody, he brought his own sword and helmet, he's even got the least stupid name. "Knorr" just makes me think of Marco Pierre White pretending that he uses jellified stock, and Dog appears to be strangling himself, perhaps to test how well the novelty Pluto ears he got from Disneyworld will stay on his head in battle.
Despite his credentials, I won't be playing as Hawk. No, I'm afraid there's only one option for me and between his lack of hair, his concerned expression and the fact that we're the same age, I have little choice but to play as Nop.
"You're choosing me? Really? Ugh, fine, whatever.
I don't think it actually matters who you pick, I couldn't discern any difference between the characters, so let's get straight into the first event!
It's... a tug-of-war. I've gotta say, I was expecting something a little more, I dunno, barbaric. A tug-of-war is a decent enough test of strength, but it's less "hordes of savage warriors locked in mortal combat" and more "school sports day." Tug-of-war was once an actual Olympic event, you know, and I for one would much rather see that in the modern Olympiad than the seven thousand different types of cycling they have these days.
To play this tug-of-war game, all you need to do is press down on the joystick. That makes Nop pull the rope. If you press down and the fire button, he pulls harder at the expense of more stamina. Once your energy is depleted, stop tugging, wait for it to refill and then pull once more. That seems to be all there is to it, and slowly - oh so slowly, brutally slowly, why-must-I-continue to-live slowly - you'll drag your opponent (in this case, the CPU player called Droid) into a shallow, water-filled ditch.
One event into the Barbarian Games, and already excitement levels are running so high that crowd numbers are up to a record five people!
Alright, so the tug-of-war is a bit dull, but that's just a warm-up, a prelude to the shower of blood and / or guts that will no doubt be coming our way in the next event!
Behold, the Wooden Tower... of PAIN! Nop isn't standing up there to admire the view or to act as an early-warning system should some other barbarians choose this moment to attack, he's up there because the point of this event is to jump off the tower and clear as much distance as you can. You charge up your jump by pulling the joystick down, then release it to leap off the tower and into the hearts of your adoring fans.
You might be wondering what's stopping you from just holding down the joystick until you've reached maximum power and then flying the furthest possible distance, and if you are then you should probably stop thinking about this game so hard. In answer to your question, simply jumping the furthest isn’t enough for victory. For your jump to count, you have to land head-first.
Well, it's certainly more manly than the tug-of-war. To land correctly, you have to press the fire button while your character's head is pointing downwards - but the longer you held down jump, the faster they spin and the harder it is to get the timing right and make them stick in the dirt like something from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. It's a decent little game, definitely much more interesting than the tug-of-war, so maybe Blood and Guts will have some more minor gems to surprise me with.
As for the result: Droid won, his superior robot brain allowing him to position himself correctly even at the fastest rotational speeds.
Next up, boulder rolling. This is simple enough - you waggle the joystick left and right to build enough strength to take a step, press fire to step forward and repeat. Unfortunately, either due to the joystick I was using not being up to the task, the pitiful weakness of my spaghetti-like forearms or the punishing difficulty level, Nop could not muster the energy to budge that boulder. I think I managed one step before Droid reached the summit and, in a move so unsporting that even Joey Barton would be taken aback, he rolled his boulder down the hill and flattened me.
What a prick.
Result: If I said it was a crushing defeat, would you think any less of me?
Event four, and my prayers for a task that played to my strengths were answered... or so I thought.
Drinking beer is the aim of the game and I thought I had this one in the bag, having been in training for it since I was eighteen years old. Sadly, it turns out that this minigame has little to do with the real-world physics of supping ale and is, in fact, another bout of joystick-waggling.
Nop, my good man, I share the very same sentiment.
Press up to raise the tankard to your mouth and start drinking, then violently slam the joystick left and right as quickly as possibly to swallow the beer. The amount of beer in your gob is displayed in the strange cutaway profile picture of your head, and make sure you don't chug too quickly because if you spill a single drop then you are disqualified. Oh, I'm sorry, I though these were barbarian games, not "daintily sip your drink in the manner of a pensioner tackling her yearly Christmas sherry" games. Result: Droid won, but I don't care. I won the moral victory by pouring as much ale into my face as possible at once.
The next challenge is simpler. It's about as simple as they get, in fact; just throw rocks at a restrained target using a crosshair and the fire button. I think this is what happens to barbarians who spill their beer, and to win the round you have to hit each of the four targets three times in a faster time than Droid. Yes, four targets - for some reason that guy's right arm isn't a target, but his left arm is. Look, I don't make the rules here, I just throw the rocks. And throw the rocks I did, with speed and precision, hitting the target (or Steve, as he's known to his friends,) without missing once. Droid still won. I'm beginning to suspect he's cheating.
I'd love to tell you what's going on in event six, but frankly I have no idea. Droid and I sat opposite each other on a log, each of us armed with a turkey drumstick. Then I wiggled the joystick, pressed fire a few times and Droid fell off the log. Hurrah!
I'm not proud; I'll take this freebie and revel in my accidental victory. At least I didn't cheat, Droid.
This is more like it, an event that I can understand. This is the hammer throw, and all you need to do is press the button at the right time. Your barbarian spins around on the spot, gaining speed with each rotation, until you press fire and launch your missile. Wait too long and your character gets tired and starts spinning more slowly, so this event is about holding your nerve and finding the correct timing to throw your projectile. That's definitely not a hammer you're throwing, though. It's not even the hammer they use in the actual hammer throw event, the one that looks nothing like a hammer. But what could it be?
Oh, I see, it's a cat. This is the cat-throwing event. Well, I did say I was expecting something more barbaric, and hurling small animals as far as possible definitely fits into that... I was going to say cat-egory, but my doctor says I shouldn't overdo it with the puns.
Rather worryingly, cat-throwing seems to be my true calling in life and after one mistimed throw where I launched the poor moggy face-first into a tree, I got the timing spot-on and threw that cat so hard that it sailed over the far end of the course and into the record books. Not even Droid and his cheating ways could top that, and Nop claims another event.
Unfortunately, the next task focuses on coordination and precision instead of my ability to sling household pets as far as possible. Nop and Droid are balanced on a tightrope, and you have to move the joystick left and right to keep your balance while travelling along the high-wire. The event ended in the most humiliating defeat since the boulder-rolling, as Droid calmly jogged across the rope while I flailed about wildly, looking like your dad that time he tried to ride a skateboard. I never even made it half-way to the middle, and whoever reaches the center of the rope first bounces up and down, sending their rival tumbling down the mountainside. I don't know if this was American Action's plan all along, but I really, really want to beat Droid now - I'm not sure how a five-pixel-tall stick figure managed to look smug as he made me fall to my death, but he did.
We're coming to the end of the barbarian games, and this is the point where the organisers ran out of ideas for new events. After rolling boulders, jumping off towers and drinking the local breweries dry they simply said "fuck it" and had the two competitors stand slightly apart and throw hammers at each other. It's almost beautiful in its simplicity, the kind of contest that you would expect a bunch of bored barbarians (or rugby players) to come up with, and indeed it is easy to play. The competitors take it in turns to throw hammers, or possibly axes, at each other - you can see one in the screenshot above, it's the grey T-shaped thing. You can throw them high or low, and you can avoid them by ducking or jumping over them. Get hit by the hammer and you lose, both the event and presumably a lot of blood.
I had a plan, and that plan was to do nothing but throw hammers at Droid's shins. I knew he'd fall for it eventually, and as our rivalry had spilled over into full-blown hatred the idea of shattering his shins with a flying mallet was very appealing. This strategy worked, and Nop takes this round when Droid forgets to jump.
We've reached the final event, and what else could it be but arm wrestling? A contest of pure strength, or in this case a contest of how fast you can shake the joystick back and forth. As it turns out, I still can't do that very fast. This is a theme of Blood and Guts, and all my victories so far have come in the events that didn't involve stick-waggling. It seems extremely difficult, far more difficult than is enjoyable, and it's the weakest aspect of a game that's otherwise a decent multi-sports title. Of course, Droid won. That wasn't enough for him, though. Oh no, he had to get a bird to shit on my head.
It's a well-known fact that birds - especially birds that look like flying turds themselves - have nothing but contempt for people with sub-par arm wrestling skills, and will dive-bomb anyone that loses a round. Oh well, at least I'm bald so I won't have to pick it out of my hair.
Right, that's the end of these barbarian games, and the scores are in - Nop loses to Droid by a score of four events to six. Closer than I expected, and the result was solely down to the inclusion of the stick-waggling events, but that's okay. We all had fun here today, and I shall watch graciously as Droid collects his prize until it's time for me to collect my runners-up medal. Why, they're calling me up to the podium now!
Aww, nuts. Had I know this was a contest in which my very life was on the line, I might have tried harder. No, wait, no I wouldn't. Screw you, Droid, and screw all you people who have gathered to watch my execution. I hope that bird shits on all your heads.
Oh, Blood and Guts, your title promised two simple things and you didn't deliver on either of them. Even the beheading is a clean, bloodless affair, and that's to be expected because these barbarians are clearly immortal. Think about it: they've been crushed by boulders, fallen off mountains, had hammers throw into their face and swung angry, confused cats around, and yet they show no sign of harm. This must be the barbarian afterlife, the Elysian Fields for brawny savages who like hurting things, a blissful realm where they can kick the shit out of each other for all eternity without any permanent death or disfigurement. I wouldn't be surprised if Nop climbed out of the guillotine and reattached his own head before starting the whole thing over again.
Blood and Guts, despite the filthy lies in its title, is a not-too-bad example of a genre all too common on the home computers of the mid-eighties. The events are simple enough to be fun and different enough to be interesting and the graphics do their job pretty well, and the whole thing is at least more interesting than yet another Olympics-based title. It has problems, of course - there are long loading times between each event, the more button-mash-y events are too difficult and too tiring and the computer is far too good at them, but if you played it with a friend Blood and Guts would be a jolly enough way to pass an hour or so. And hey, I got to break Droid's legs by throwing a hammer at them, which was nice. Does that make me a sociopath? Possibly, but I wasn't the one who set up a sporting event where second place means a trip to meet Madame Guillotine.