That’s right, it’s a game based on the classic? Cult classic? Let’s go with cult classic action-fantasy film from the same year. Highlander seems to have maintained a fairly prominent place in the pop-cultural memory, anyway, and I’m sure most people know it’s about Connor MacLeod, a member of a group of immortal people who can only be killed by decapitation. The immortals fight each other in order to a) not get decapitated and b) claim a vague and mysterious prize called, imaginatively, The Prize. If nothing else, Highlander is famous for its tagline of “there can be only one,” meaning that the last immortal left with their head attached gets the prize. Despite what this title screen may suggest, claiming The Prize does not turn the recipient into a stone statue with the expression of someone who’s just reached the bathroom after a very long car ride.
There aren’t many options offered to you when you start a game of Highlander. You can play a two-player game against a friend, but friendship is a precious gift and you shouldn’t put it at risk by subjecting another human to this. What else have we got? Well, a few fairly well-rendered pictures of swords. That’s always nice. Everyone loves a good pixel sword. Where would videogames be without swords, eh? Yes, you’re right, I absolutely am stalling. Okay, fine, here’s Highlander.
Yes, it is a one-on-one swordfighting game, because there are few other directions a Highlander game could take. Maybe a business management game where you try to create as many bizarre and forgettable sequels, animated spin-offs and reboots as possible from a series that was wrapped up quite neatly at the end of the first movie. That could be interesting.
You play as Connor MacLeod, naturally. That’s him on the left, with the flowing locks and large brown socks. Your opponent is none other than Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, the ancient Egyptian / latterly Spanish swordsman famously played by the resolutely Scottish Sean Connery. If you’re ever in need of a quick mood-lifter, try saying “My name’sh Ramiresh” to yourself in the most over-the-top Connery impersonation you can. It always cheers me up.
Ramirez wastes no time trying to give MacLeod the ultimate haircut, which is weird because he’s MacLeod’s friend and mentor. You could argue that this is all supposed to be training, but that doesn’t explain why Ramirez is happy to attack relentlessly and then lop your head off. The only real explanation is that no-one at Ocean gave a shit about what they were doing when making Highlander, an explanation amply supported by almost every other facet of the game.
In an effort to defend myself, I checked out the controls and they’re laid out exactly as I expected them to be – that is, they’re supposedly the same as every other one-on-one fighting game for the C64. Moving the joystick moves your character, while moving the stick while holding the fire button produces a variety of attacks at different heights or puts you in a blocking position. So, you can swing your sword that the opponents head, body or most importantly neck, and you can block at various different heights. You can even kneel down. In a game about avoiding decapitation, this seems like the second dumbest move you can make after drawing a dotted line around your neck, but there you go.
However, there’s a problem. Quite a major problem, in fact. None of this works. Oh, sure, your character moves around the screen and sometimes swings their sword, but it has nothing to do with your input. Getting the same move to come out twice in a row when you want it to is about as likely as finding Elvis’ ghost clogging up your downstairs toilet. MacLeod frequently moves according to his own whims, which especially noticeable when he keeps walking backwards without any prompting.
On top of that, the player receives almost no feedback about what’s going on. A constant “ting, ting, ting” sound effect plays that I presume is meant to represent the mighty blows of these swordsmen clashing together but sounds more like a woodpecker trapped inside a paint can, and it has nothing to do with when the swords actually clash. They don’t clash, really. They just pass through everything, air, sword, and body part alike, without any kind of visual feedback, resulting in the juddering, amorphous mess you can see in the GIF above. You do have a health bar, of sorts: it’s the pixel-thick line at the bottom. Sometimes it goes down when a sword comes near you. Mind you, sometimes it goes down when a sword doesn’t come near you, so it’s hardly a reliable indicator of impending decapitation. Your health, or power, or whatever it’s supposed to represent, will regenerate if you stand still for a while, but this is nigh-impossible to see in action because the CPU characters attack with such relentless aggression that you’d think Connor MacLeod had been round their house, defacated in a pot-plant and wiped his arse with their dog.
I was completely unable to defeat Ramirez, but that doesn’t matter because you can load any of Highlander’s battles and there’s no reward for victory anyway. There’s no attempt at a storyline or anything in this one, you simply load up the character you want to fight and then keep fighting them. Even if you do manage to win a fight, all that happens is that you win counter moves up by one and you get to do it again.
This second bout is against Fasil, a low-tier immortal in a business suit and shades. You’d be forgiven for assuming Ocean forgot to draw eyes on his sprite but no, he’s supposed to be wearing sunglasses. They got that detail right, but then managed to misspell Fasil’s name as “Fazir,” because of course they did.
Fasil and MacLeod fight right at the beginning of the movie, in order to introduce the audience to the concept of blokes swordfighting in dingy locations. With that in mind, you’d think Fasil would be the first opponent in the game, a notion only strengthened by Fasil being easier to defeat than Ramirez. I still didn’t have any idea what was going to happen when I moved the joystick, but as long as I was moving the joystick MacLeod managed to jerk across the screen and wave his arms around often enough for Fasil to suffer a spontaneous decapitation in roughly fifty percent of our battles. You can see Fasil’s mistake in the screenshot above: rather than going for the killing blow, he’s resorted to stabbing MacLeod right in the balls, adding further evidence to my theory than all these fights have nothing to do with claiming the Prize and are rooted in everyone having a deep-seated loathing of Connor.
Finally, you can do battle against the Kurgan himself. Did Ocean misspell Kurgan’s name, too? You bet your ass they did. It’s disappointing but completely expected that no effort was made to recreate Clancy Brown’s, erm, unique face for this game, and he’s been drawn with the suggestion of a beard, which makes him look more like a middle-aged dad than a feared killer. A middle-aged dad with ridiculously large feet, at that.
You may also notice that Connor’s head has fallen off. Get used to seeing that if you’re dumb enough try fighting against Kurgan, because he’s ridiculously overpowered in comparison to the other two fighters. I don’t think I ever landed a hit on him. The game wouldn’t tell me even if I did, but I never saw his health bar move, either. Kurgan wins simply by walking forwards and bashing you a couple of times, because his attacks do way more damage than anyone else’s. It’d be nice if you could defend yourself, but as I’ve mentioned the combat in this game simply does not work. Sure, there are blocking moves in the game, but they could be replaced with animations of Connor singing “Touch My Bum” for all the use they are. Let’s say Kurgan’s about to swing his sword, so you think “I know, I’ll block his attack.” The first problem is that you’ve got no way of knowing whether your joystick input is going to correspond to the move you want. Even if by some miracle it does, Connor moves so slowly that you have no chance of reacting in time anyway. Kurgan swings, Connor does something, maybe, and then Connor’s head falls off.
I honestly cannot overstate how utterly devoid of fun Highlander is. Purely in terms of gameplay, this probably is the worst game I’ve ever played. Other games have hideous aesthetics or offensive content or an even thicker coating of money-grubbing cynicism, but when it comes to the basic act of playing the game Highlander is pure, concentrated misery. You’re barely even playing it at all, and that’s what makes it so awful: the whole point of computer and videogames is that the player is in control. That’s what separates them from other media. When that’s taken away, what do you have left? Absolutely bugger all, that’s what.
With all that said, there is one solitary reason to load up Highlander, and that’s the music. There’s only one track, but that track is Martin Galway’s SID interpretation of Queen’s “A Kind of Magic” and it’s definitely worth a listen.
It’s one moment of quality in what is otherwise an abject disaster, and best of all it’s the title theme, so you don’t even have to play the game to hear it. In this way, even Highlander for the Commodore 64 can be enjoyed. And here I always thought I was a pessimist, but that’s one hell of a “glass half-full” statement.