Developer(s) – Athena
Publisher(s) – Athena & Activision
Designer(s) – Hironobu Tamai & R. Nakashima
PEGI – 3
Released late into the shelf life of both the NES and the Famicom back in 1990, with the overseas released not happening until 1992, Sword Master was the sequel to Athena’s previous NES game Castle of Dragon and is today considered an extremely weak effort on their part, and thus has fallen into considerable obscurity compared to may other NES games. And I must say, after having examined this title and having come across a plethora of flaws, it’s very much deserved of its status.
Graphics – 2/10
Aside from bearing a striking resemblance to the original Castlevania, in terms of things like overworld map layout, color scheme, and character and enemy design, it also happens to be one of the most unpolished games I’ve ever played. A fair few NES games suffered from graphic glitches, but this game took it to new heights, with graphical errors appearing whenever a player attacks or is defeated. Just like in Castlevania, enemies are also engulfed in flames whenever they are defeated, which makes me question how much of this game can actually be attributed to its respective developers.
Gameplay – 4.5/10
The game is also extremely similar to the original Castlevania in many more ways than one; including the gameplay. The objective, as in many other video games at the time, is simply to get from point A to point B, fighting any or all enemies that stand in the way, and with the added challenge of a few boss fights thrown in for good measure. But the main reason why I believe this game should lose many marks is it’s extremely bland even compared to the many different games that followed these tropes. Though this happened, games like Castlevania, Mega Man, and Super Mario Bros had things going for them that no other game at the time did, such as heightened challenge, a heightened sense of non-linearity or greater gameplay variety. Unfortunately, this game has none of these things associated with it.
Controls – 10/10
The one positive thing I can point out about this game, however, is that unlike Castlevania, the controls don’t feel quite as stiff, and therefore, there is much less of a sense of unnecessary complication with the controls scheme. The movement speed may be more or less the same as the original Castlevania, but that doesn’t really too much to hinder what little gameplay there is.
Lifespan – 6/10
Though by today’s standards, 20 minutes will seem laughable to most gamers, it was about the average lifespan of a game for the time; indeed, even Super Mario Bros would take around that much time to complete given the right amount of experience. That being said, it’s hard to imagine that the developers wouldn’t have been able to add even a few more levels to make this game last a little bit longer. I guess they didn’t share Nintendo’s reservations about leaving empty space on a cartridge whilst developing their games.
Storyline – 3/10
The story is also practically non-existent, most likely confined to the game’s manual; a regular occurrence at this time, when the emphasis on story in video games was a rarity. It involves a knight called Sword Master out to slay the evil duo of a demon and a wizard, which he apparently summoned. So not only is it very half-hearted, but it’s also very typical of the kind of story most video games would utilize; only in this game, there isn’t a princess seemingly being taken from one castle to the next.
Originality – 0/10
As well as this game being very boring, it’s also very unimaginative too. Although console gaming was still in a primitive form and had yet to evolve into the highly standardized industry it is today, far better games than this had already been developed before on the NES or Famicom, and as I’ve thoroughly outlined, this title failed to deliver the same kind of classic gaming experience synonymous with other NES games.
To summarize, Sword Master is a classic example of developers creating a game haphazardly, and failing in almost every aspect imaginable. Activision has since gone on to publish much greater games than this, but things started out primitively upon heir breakaway from Atari, and this game is a prominent example of which.