Is it just me, or does Knight Games sound like the title of a Camelot-themed erotic thriller? I caught the intro to Red Shoe Diaries the other day (leading to a brief moment spent wondering if I'd stumbled upon the weirdest X-Files episode ever) so maybe Knight Games would be like that, with David Duchovny in full plate armour reading aloud his latest tale of lust and betrayal. "Deare Scarlet Sabaton Diaries, I am a chaste young maiden and fair but this season a handsome Knight Erraunt pledg'd his chivalrie to me..."See, now, that was a bad way to start this article about, because it's way more interesting than the actual game I'll be looking at today: English Software's 1986 Commodore 64 release Knight Games!
That's Knight Games, the game so good they named it twice (on the title screen, at least) "...bet you can't beat a good Knight," it says, a laboured pun that would fit quite nicely into VGJunk itself, although I would have emphasised "beat" rather than "you." Because you're beating up the other knights, you see. Aside from that bit of linguistic japery, the title screen also shows a knight with a terrible underarm hair problem and an indecipherable mass of pixels where the front of its helmet should be. I think it's looking towards the right of the screen, but I will happily accept I could be wrong. His feet are also so small as to be useless.
A clattering cavalcade of knights in all the colours of the rainbow! If you want hot knight-on-knight action then you've come to the right place, my friend! We've got knights with swords, knights with sticks, red knights, green knights, purple knights, knights that might not even be knights but are in fact just some guy with a bad haircut in blue jeans and long winter coat! That's Knight Games - all knights, all the time!
So, you might have figured out that Knight Games is another entry in the Commodore 64's vast supply of multi-events "sports" titles, a collection of minigames grouped together under a common theme - in this case, knights. There are eight events in all: Swordfight 1 and 2, quarterstaff, archery, ball and chain, pikestaff, crossbow and axeman. I hope that last one's about two knights engaging in a guitar duel filled with shredding solos. One glaring omission that caught my eye in this list of games for knights - these knight games, if you will - is jousting. No jousting at all in this one, I'm afraid. How do you make a game about knights having a tournament and not include the most famous of all knightly tournament activities? It's like the Olympics with the 100 metres, or any television talent show without a preliminary round of god-awful, delusional no-hopers.
Straight into the action with the Swordfighting 1 event, where the player (the knight with the white vest) must hit the computer character (the knight wearing the vest in a colour I believe is called "Washed-In Piss Stain" on the Dulux colour chart) as many times as possible. As per the rules of chivalry, both knights are exactly the same in size and ability to keep things fair, and they must use their skill and tactical acumen to triumph over their opponent.
Sure, I've got skill - the skill to repeatedly tap down on the joystick, which makes my knight stab the other fellow in the face. You might think that one good solid stab to the face would be enough to end a swordfight, especially if you got lucky and it slipped through your opponent's visor, but these knights are tougher than one of my grandmother's "well-done" steaks and they require eighty face stabbings to be beaten. That's what the dots on the left of the screen and the shields at the top represent: the dots are hit point, and when you lose all of those you lose a life, represented by the shields. Remove all of your opponent's shields and you win by "knock out," which I presume is a chivalric code for "massive blood loss."
I didn't just poke my foe in the face, though. I made a token effort to use the other sword techniques, of which there are three more, although none of them seemed quite as effective. Performing these moves is as easy as moving the joystick left, right, up or down, a simple control scheme that I think I've already figured out is too simple to sustain Knight Games through one event, let alone eight. Let's hope all the other non-projectile events aren't re-skinned versions of the swordfighting, eh? That would make for a pretty dull game.
The quarterstaff duel now, where the swords are replaced with sticks and metal helms are swapped for jaunty Robin Hood caps. "Just take a quick look under my skirt," says the man in green, "and tell me if it looks infected up there".
I don't know why neither of these men are wearing trousers. Comfort, possibly. It looks like a nice sunny day, they're probably enjoying the invigorating breeze around their quarterstaffs.
Well, I'd better get the big reveal out of the way - the quarterstaff fighting is, in fact, a re-skinned version of the swordfighting, and so is every non-projectile-based event in the game. It's sticks instead of swords, and the developers did at least give the combatants a whole new repertoire of moves, like the pole-vaulting kick pictured above. Other than that, though, it's the same as before, and victory can be achieved with ease and and significant amounts of boredom by throwing out the same attack over and over again. You'll trade blows and take some hits, but you always seem to out-damage your opponent and claim victory.
I tried to play Knight Games properly, I really did. The manual claims that there are defensive moves that you can use by moving the joystick diagonally, and you can move your character by holding the fire button as you move the joystick, and I spent a fair amount of time trying to fight my battles in a manner befitting a noble knight of yore. I darted in and out of range, I tried to block incoming attacks and counter with blows of my own, but in the end it not only didn't work - even if you block in the right place, your enemy's attacks damage you half the time anyway - but it's completely pointless. Pointless in a literal sense, even, because your only goal in the game is to score as many points as possible. You get a big score bonus if you manage to knock out your rival before the time runs out, but using any other strategy besides standing right in front of them and whacking away like they were a rock wall and you were an inmate of a Siberian gulag will not allow you to beat them before the timekeeping candle melts away. So clobber away, Sir Knight, until the battle is ended and you can put on some trousers.
The archery game provides something different, although sadly that something isn't "fun". A tousle-haired and extremely confused-looking young man who lacks both the lordly bearing of a knight and working knees will be attempting to score points by shooting the targets in front of him. And what are those targets?
Why, motorcycles shaped like horses, of course! What, don't you remember the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain, who refused to accept his death at the hands of the Green Knight and instead burned away on his horse-shaped motorbike, wheelieing though the land of Camelot and shouting "verily, thou canst eat mine dust!"
Okay, so the horses are probably wooden dummies being pulled along that rope, but that certainly doesn't make them any easier to hit. In concept the archery event is simple enough - you move the wobbling, juddering crosshair into the right place and then press fire to loose an arrow, making sure to lead your target. The difficulties you will encounter are twofold. One, the crosshair shakes around like the archer drank twenty cans of Red Bull and then stuck a pneumatic drill up his backside and two, the target area is tiny. Just hitting the horse isn't good enough, oh no: I scored many a hit on the tail or the legs that scored me no points. You have to hit the saddle to be successful. Yes, the saddle is that minute brown square in the middle of the horse. No, I didn't hit it very often. The archery isn't great, then, and certainly not as good as Forbidden Forest, but at least I had to look at the screen to win, unlike the combat games.
The ball and chain now, although they look rather more like delicate fairy wands than instruments of bludgeoning death, and considering how many hits it takes to knock someone out with them the comparison may not be a million miles off. Maybe they look more impressive in motion?
Well, they're enthusiastic if nothing else. Just look at that green knight go! Someone's going to sleep well tonight, bless him.
Instead of writing all these words about Knight Games, I could have just posted this GIF with the caption "that's it, that's the game," because it really captures the aimless flailing (no pun intended) of the fighting action. It's such a shame, too, because a tournament of knightly virtue could be a great setting for a not-terrible game. I like knights, I think they're cool (although that could admittedly be down to a form of digital Stockholm Syndrome brought on by spending so long playing the Dark Souls games) but the only "medieval tournament" games I've played are this and the equally disappointing Defender of the Crown.
This is Swordfighting 2. It is exactly the same as Swordfighting 1, only it takes place in front of a paint-by-numbers picture of a castle. The knights involved have realised the futility of their duel, each man turning to look at the player with an expression of stony contempt somehow written across their bucket helmets. Swordfighting 3 will consist of these knight rallying men to their banner and rising up in open rebellion against the rulers of the land and their capricious, sadistic whims. No, of course not. That would be much too interesting.
This event is pikestaff, which is odd because I'm fairly sure the weapon in question is just called a pike. Were English Software worried that people would think that these knights were hitting each other with large, carnivorous river fish?
The gameplay here is the same as always, leaving the sound effects as the main point of interest. Thanks to the constant metallic sproinging, if you closed your eyes you'd be forgiven for thinking you were playing as someone trying to destroy a spring factory by throwing tin cans into the machinery. However, if you are thinking about playing Knight Games for some reason, I'd recommend doing so with your eyes open. Not because you need to see what you're doing in order to win but because the graphics are probably the best thing about the game, with chunky and pleasingly well-animated sprites that are very rarely not wearing trousers.
Here comes the crossbow game to break up the tedium with a marginally lower level of tedium! There's nothing complicated about this one, just line up the crosshair and press fire to launch a bolt at the targets. The targets spin around, having been hung from the gallows for their unspecified crimes, so you have to time your shots in order to hit the front and score points but after my complete and humiliating failure to get to grips with the archery game this seems easier than falling off a greased log spinning at 5,000 RPM. Plus you appear to be playing as a gingerbread man in a studded leather vest, so the crossbow definitely takes the gold as the best event in the game.
Finally, you get to engage in some axeman. I'm gonna axe this knight some difficult questions, I've got an axe to grind, he should just axe-ept his inevitable defeat, etcetera. You see what you've reduced me to, Knight Games? There's no wonder you managed to pack in such a massive crowd to watch this axe fight. I think these guys started fighting somewhere around the second course and they're still going long after everyone has finished the banquet and has retired to their quarters, muttering about how boring the entertainment was. "Next time I'll hire the close-up magic guy," thinks the king, but there will be no "next time" because these two knights will forever occupy the banqueting hall, clanking away at each other in an empty room until the end of time
Despite nominally being a tournament, there's no grand prize waiting for you at the end of Knight Games, just a list of your scores in the various events and the unshakeable feeling that you've wasted your time. You can see by the incredibly low scores I've posted in them just how much harder the shooting games are than the rest, but that also makes them the most interesting.
It's a shame, because I really wanted to like Knight Games. Knights are cool, swordfighting can be fun and the games gets the most basic elements right - the controls are fairly sharp and responsive (never a given for a C64 game), and there's a decent variety of moves without things becoming overly complex - but it wastes all that by making anything other than relentless attacking with the same move completely redundant. Also, no jousting. How can you not have jousting? Were you worried that you wouldn't be able to create an exciting and engaging digital jousting simulator, English Software? If that's the case, I've got some bad news for you regarding your ability to make a fun swordfighting game. It seems that even the creators were disappointed with their attempts to capture the spirit of medieval combat, because Knight Games 2 is set, get this, in space. Apparently it's even worse than Knight Games 1. The mind boggles.