Okay, let's get the obvious reference out of the way early: I am Spartacus. No, really, in today's game I get the chance to play as Spartacus and fight my way out of slavery, escaping into what I'm sure will be a much happier life of freedom and sunshine and baskets full of sneezing kittens that are both cute and easy to monetise videos of on YouTube. Written (and illustrated, and composed) by one Ian Potts, it's the 1988 Commodore 64 one-man-slave-rebellion-em-up Spartacus the Swordslayer!
Alliteration: the Action-Adventure, Starring Rowdy Romans and Gruesome Gladiatorial Grudge Matches! Not the most captivating title screen you're ever likely to see, but let's be generous and pretend it's going for a tone of sombre import rather than just being super boring.
Things are off to a tough start for Spartacus. Well, they would be. He's unlikely to start an uprising if they're keeping him in the Ritz and paying him two million denarii a year. Also I read the phrase "House of Lentulus" and immediately imagined a Roman fast-food restaurant specialising in lentil dishes. The worst fast food place imaginable, in other words.
Here is Spartacus himself, resplendant in the black executioner's hood he was famed for wearing, ready to be lead out into the arena from which he may not return. If I were you, Spartacus, I'd start my escape now rather than after the fight to the death. There's only one guard, and he's right there. You have a sword and shield. He has a whip. If you jump the guard, he will be able to whip you once, at most, before you decapitate him. I can only put Spartacus' decision to not follow this course of action down to his desire to provide entertainment to the regular citizens of Rome, who have paid their hard-earned money for a seat at today's deathmatch. Spartacus is a performer first and a champion against tyranny second, folks.
See, this is an example of the importance of punctuation, because you could read the above sentence and interpret it to mean that Crassus is fighting gladiators, occasionally taking a glance over at Spartacus to see how he's doing.
That is not the case, of course. Crassus is up at the back of the amphitheatre, watching the action from the ancient equivalent of a director's box whilst snuggled up in a comfy purple dressing gown. No, it's Spartacus that's doing the fighting, and here we see him going toe-to-toe with another gladiator. The opposing gladiator's weapon is presumably meant to be a trident, but looks more like an oversized novelty table fork. If the mighty Neptune, lord of the sea, came bursting through the swirling foam carrying that thing he'd be immediately laughed back to his undersea grotto, and rightly so. Anyway, Spartacus the Swordslayer is a one-on-one fighting game, and because it's on the Commodore 64 I reckon I've already got a decent idea of the basic controls: move the joystick to walk around, move the joystick while holding the fire button down to attack.
Yes, that seems to be working for me. Not working well, as you can see by Spartacus' ongoing disembowelment in the image above, but my rough idea of what the controls would be turned out to be mostly accurate. I was a little thrown by moving the stick up and away causing Spartacus to jump towards his opponent. Maybe it was meant to take the gladiator by surprise. I definitely took me by surprise. Other than that, you can waddle slowly back or forwards, block attacks with your shield and swing your weapon either high, low or somewhere in the middle in an attempt to hit the other fighter the six or so times it takes for you to claim victory. Got all that? Good. Now forget it completely, because Spartacus the Swordslayer is a barely-functional mess of jagged sprites that might be be interacting with each other, but if they are then it's according to the strange and unfathomable laws of a universe beyond the ken of mortal man. Collision detection? Yes, it would be nice, wouldn't it? Instead you're witness to sights like Spartacus crouching down and jamming his sword into the gladiator's nethers so often and with such venom that you begin to worry for his mental state with no result, only for the gladiator to waft his comedy fork in the rough vicinity of Spartacus' head, taking a chunk of the hero's health bar with it.
I somehow managed to triumph, though it was definitely more to do with luck than sound planning. I've been playing Spartacus the Swordslayer for about three minutes and it has already revealed itself as a game where sound planning will get you nowhere, except maybe into a big book of hilarious tales of the medical profession as "the man with a fork in the wrong orifice." The crowd aren't happy about Spartacus winning, though, and so Brutus is sent in to teach me a lesson.
Brutus is the same as the other guy, except his hat is grey. No wonder he's the fan's favourite.
In an effort at fair reportage, I gave the fighting another chance and maybe it's not quite as terrible as I made it sound. Don't get me wrong, it's still very, very bad, but at least you can move around and Spartacus is responsive enough that you might even be able to block an attack by raising your shield if you see it coming in time. The thing is, if you're holding your shield up (or holding your sword-arm behind your head, ready to release your strike, which is something else you can do that's sort of interesting) and don't move, the computer player won't move either. You can paralyse your opponent by lifting your arm up and merely threatening to strike, like a schoolyard bully. There's no advantage to be gained from this, because the other fighter starts moving as soon as you do, but it's a strange quirk and it's always interesting to see a fighting game approach Rise of the Robots levels of baffling mechanics.
I am not an ambitious man. In fact, I have been told several times that my lack of desire for self-improvement is my most severe character flaw. However, I now have a great desire to become emperor of somewhere, anywhere, because I realise that having the ability to command an eagle to attack people who displease me is all I want from life and it's something you can only get away with if you're an emperor, or a tribal warlord at the very least.
The eagle is a formidable opponent indeed, and the previous two fights must have really taken it out of Spartacus because while in those battles he could take a trident to the face several times and still come out swinging, the eagle's talons will cause instant death should they so much as ruffle Spartacus's hood. Maybe it's a venomous eagle, that sounds like something a Roman statesman would have access to.
As for slaying the terrible beast, it's a matter of holding your nerve. The eagle flies towards you along a path that puts it in perfect stabbing range, but if you swing to early the eagle will retreat out of reach. So, you must wait until the eagle is close - close enough that in the movie version of Spartacus the Swordslayer it would be the moment where the stars are about to kiss before something interrupts them - and then swing your sword. The eagle won't be able to get out of the way quickly enough to avoid death. Crassus will now be very angry. I imagine he had an emotional attachment to his eagle that he did not feel for his gladiators.
Okay, "Oblivius" was a joke name for a particularly dopey centurion in an Asterix comic, right?
That's, erm, quite the physique you've got there, Oblivius. Very chunky. The Ranger from Quake would like his helmet back, though.
More fighting for Spartacus, then, against an opponent who looks menacing despite his pink armour but is basically the same as the two gladiators you already defeated. He's a little more aggressive, maybe, but because there's no real strategy you can employ beyond "wave your sword around like a raver's glow-sticks and hope the collision detection is paying attention" it makes this fight, and all the fights in the game, very samey.
Deadly arrows, huh? That's okay, I've got a shield and as long as the arrows aren't being carried by eagles I'll just deflect the projectiles and make my escape!
Deflecting these arrows would be a lot easier if I could see the bloody things. There's one heading for Spartacus' ankle right now: it's difficult to see in the screenshot, but in the interests of fairness I should mention they're a lot easier to see in motion. Sadly, Spartacus cannot lower his shield far enough to block arrows travelling an inch above the ground - arrows that must have been fired by a Roman soldier lying on his side in the dirt with his bow held horizontally in a bold new take on archery - so you have to jump over them. Hop over the low arrows, duck under the high ones and block the rest with your shield. It's all very simple, especially because you're given an awful lot of leeway when jumping over the low arrows. As long as you jump at some point while they're on the screen, you'll be given credit for effort and Spartacus will remain unharmed as the arrow flies through his feet.
Dodging the arrows is simple enough, so I stood there and did it for a while. It just kept happening, volley after volley of arrows bouncing harmlessly off Spartacus' shield as the newly-wealthy fletchers of ancient Rome rubbed their hands together with glee. "Maybe I have to get to the other side of the screen", I thought, and so I walked over there... and kept walking right off the edge of the screen. The stage didn't end, though. Spartacus was still there, he'd just moved out of my field of vision, as evidenced by the gradual erasure of his health bar and the sound of arrows thwacking into his unarmoured flesh. I moved Spartacus back onto the screen, where I could see him, blocked a few more arrows then walked off the edge of the screen again, upon which the stage abruptly ended. In conclusion, I have no idea what just happened but I'm glad that it's over.
Another fight against another legionnaire, an encounter that I was having trouble with until I was down to my last health point. Then the legionnaire suddenly decided that his cataracts needed to be removed right now, and he wouldn't get a better opportunity for a bit of self-surgery than while I was standing there with my sword raised to face height. A man walks into a bar. Ouch! It wasn't a bar, it was a razor-sharp sword steeped in the blood of his comrades! Frankly, Spartacus deserves a bit of luck.
Eagles: the member of the animal kingdom with the strongest lust for revenge.
It's exactly the same as the other eagle fight. Not much variation in eagle combat tactics, when you can fly and have rending talons but not opposable thumbs, there's not much else you can do. Next time I see someone complaining about modern games all being brown and grey, I think I'll sit them down with Spartacus the Swordslayer. There's more brown and grey in this one than in an elephant enclosure during an outbreak of dysentery.
Man, the universe really has it in for poor old Spartacus, huh? What was he supposed to do, grab the eagle from behind like Solid Snake and silently slit its throat?
"Wait, was that the cry of a dying eagle? Only an eagle being put to the sword by a fleeing slave would make such a noise, I had better investigate to ensure the continued safety of the Roman Empire. Ave Caesar!"
I'll give Spartacus the Swordslayer this, it does have some impressively large sprites moving around and clashing blades, even if those sprites don't quite resemble humans. Humans that have spent generations breeding on a planet with much higher gravity than Earth, maybe. Chunky Astro-Romans. Wait, wasn't that the setting for an episode of Star Trek?
It's Grand Theft Spartacus, and his wanted level is up to five stars! Time to make a hasty exit, then.
It's a whole new type of gameplay for the final stage, and not one that is particularly welcome - it's the classic waggle-the-joystick-back-and-forth action so prevalent in the sports games of the era, good for wrecking joysticks and damaging wrists but not, it must be said, very conducive to fun. Moving the joystick left and right makes Spartacus' chariot move, sort of - it's all very herky-jerky, and if there's a specific rhythm needed to get him really motoring I couldn't find it. The Romans are throwing spears at you the whole time, and if you move too slowly a spear will be thrown that you can't avoid, slamming into Spartacus's back and killing him. If you are going fast enough, you just have to watch out for the spears at head-height, which you can duck under.
This is not a good game - it's a pretty terrible game, in fact - but my time spent playing it was all made worthwhile by seeing Spartacus ducking in his chariot, his head barely peeking out. It's just inexplicably amusing to me. I think it might be because he's wearing that goddamn executioner's hood, as though the Romans have no idea he's Spartacus and are chasing him because anyone dressed like that must be up to no good. That, and he's wanted on multiple counts of eagleicide.
The chariot escape is a fittingly tedious end to the game that suddenly screeches to a halt when the game feels like it rather than because of anything the player did, and with that Spartacus the Swordslayer is over.
Yes, Spartacus lives to fight another day... until around 71BC, where his uprising was thoroughly destroyed by the Roman forces and thousands of his followers were crucified along the roads of the Empire. Well, it's always good to end on a cheerful note, isn't it? Except this isn't the end, there's a little bit more of an ending sequence that the version of the game I was playing refused to display. Not to worry, I managed to find it on the internet. I wouldn't want you to miss out on the thrilling conclusion, now would I?
Spartacus lives in the woods now, alone and with only the concept of freedom to keep him warm. And the fire, that too. The fire can also be used to cook the eagle carcasses he's gathered, so he won't go hungry tonight!
I'll say it again, Spartacus the Swordslayer is a bad game, a boring game, a game that doesn't really work... yet I can't bring myself to hate it. Mostly that's because hating a videogame is such a colossal waste of energy, but also because this whole game was made by one person who was trying to make an interesting game, and therefore it doesn't summon the ire that a heartless licensed cash-in would. I'm sure there are some C64 fighting games that aren't an awkward mess to play, although IK+ is the only one that springs to mind, and if Spartacus the Swordslayer's combat was a little better then it could have been an interesting take on the genre. Oh well, at least I can add "betrayed by the death cries of an eagle" to the list of wonderful things videogames have let me experience over the years.