Hold, varlet, and repent thine evil ways lest the cold steel of my blade slit you from your falderals to your hey-nonny-nonnys! That's something you might have heard the hero of today's game say, had he been repeatedly dropped on his head as an infant. Oh, and if he could overcome his mutism. This noble warrior may suffer many hardships during his journey, but thankfully talking like a deranged LARPer isn't one of them. Fish, on the other hand... but I'm getting ahead of myself, and I haven't even told what the game is yet. Well, it's ADK's 1990 Neo-Geo fence-em-up Crossed Swords!
In a faraway yet utterly generic medieval-fantasy kingdom, evil is brewing, or stirring, or any number of other words associated with making a cup of tea. A dark warlord by the (rather unthreatening) name of Nausizz is out to conquer the land with his monstrous army and only you can stop him blah blah blah.
That's Nausizz at the back, flanked by two skeleton bodyguards. Actually, they probably don't like being called "bodyguards," it brings back bad memories of that time they lost all their flesh and were reanimated as soulless killing machines. Between the three of them, these guys don't have a single working eyeball: it's all empty sockets and strange metal goggles, so I shouldn't have much trouble beating them. If nothing else, their plans are going to lack vision.
Crossed Swords begins, and the Knight of Journey (that's you) is enjoying a stroll through some verdant woodland when a peasant runs up and begs for help. The poor villager is then brutally killed by a giant armoured mouse.
Honestly, I don't really know what to say about this. It's like a Disney film gone awry, Fievel Goes West and Becomes a Ruthless Mercenary, an odd mixture of anthropomorphic animal whimsy and men bleeding to death on a dusty road. Well, at least it's interesting. From a purely visual standpoint, I could mention that the mouseketeer's combination sword/gauntlet weapon makes it look as though he's extending a huge middle finger at the player, but given the circumstances it seems a little childish to point that out.
So, the mouse is your first opponent, but how do you go about fighting it? Don't worry, ADK have you covered by providing a fencing lesson during the intro.
What's the knightly equivalent of a Drill Sergeant? Whatever they're called, this guy is one of them. He's brawny of shoulder and virile of moustache, and he imparts such closely-guarded fighting techniques as "pressing left or right makes you move left or right" and "once you hit an enemy, keep hitting them." Armed with this knowledge, I can return to the battle and slay the foe before me.
Just a reminder, the foe is a giant mouse wearing plate armour. You know, in case you forgot.
From the title, the wireframe knight and the technically-third-but-really-first-person perspective, you might have figured out that Crossed Swords is a first-person swordfighting game. If you did, congratulations, have a biscuit, that's exactly what this game is. Enemies come at you one at a time and you must use your prodigious fencing skills to defeat them. It's a concept that immediately made me pay attention, because for all the thousands of videogames about hitting things with swords, there are very few that are played from the main character's viewpoint. Okay, just behind his translucent head, if you want to get really nitpicky about it. Still, it's a rare enough genre to pique my interest.
Oh, the mouse? He's about as tough as you'd expect a mouse to be. Just wait for him to jump to the front plane of the screen and hit him until he's dead. That swordfighting instructor has yet another pupil of whom he can be proud.
Things immediately get more complicated as a roving band of mutants decide to get in on the swordfighting action despite only having truncheons and some extremely pointy shoes. Simply hacking away at these enemies won't work - or rather, it will work, after a much longer time and with lots of lost health - and to get any further you'll need to master the art of defending yourself. The game makes it very clear to you that your only chance for survival is a good defence, and luckily for an old invalid like myself it's an easy system to use. You've got a shield. Holding up on the joystick blocks high attacks, and down blocks low. The challenge comes from blocking in the right direction, although early on the enemies do telegraph their attacks so much that even Audley Harrison could probably take them down. Possibly. If the mutant had a cold or something.
Blocking isn't just important to avoid getting hurt - it's also the only way to get a shot at your target most of the time. Swinging wildly at your opponent will just lead them to block and then counter, which is what you should be doing. Blocking an attack gives you a moment (and I do mean a moment) to whack the bad guy and, as a mustachioed man once taught me, keep on whacking them with a combo.
You get a few packs of mutants to practise your swordsmanship on before the first boss appears. It's a gargantuan fire-breathing caterpillar! This must be why the mice in this strange realm have evolved to be six feet tall; it's the only chance they had of being able to kill the even-bigger insects that they prey upon. Hopefully the stage two boss will be a housecat the size of a Transit van, followed by Clifford the Big Red Dog.
The caterpillar is, frankly, a pain in the arse. Having only just gotten used to countering the melee attacks of the normal enemies, I was ill-prepared for the streams of fire that this thing constantly belches out. If fire were unfunny breakfast DJ bullshit, this guy would be Chris Moyles, and you can’t tell beforehand whether it's going to attack high or low. At least it didn't have much health, and after figuring out that I could buy myself some time to avoid its attacks by standing at the very edge of the screen, I managed to kill it.
Just in case you're particularly dense, an old man tells you to "use your shield to guard yourself." Now that I've said that, however, I'm wondering if he only appeared because I was so monumentally, painfully bad at using the shield that the game figured I needed a gentle reminder. That sure would be embarrassing.
Speaking of old men, another one appears soon after to sell me items. Yes, Crossed Swords is an action game... with RPG elements! Amazing! You can buy health and new weapons from him with the gold you carved out of the bodies of giant mice, as well as increasing the size of your health bar by levelling up.
The best thing about the merchants is their sense of presentation - when you meet them they're just old men walking along the road, but the moment you tell them you're interested in doing a bit of shopping they drag out their big wooden storefront and poke their heads through the hole to give you that real RPG shop feel. It's pretty fantastic, and already I'm warming to Crossed Swords' unusual charms.
Newly-purchased Mist Sword in hand, I ventured deeper into the forest only to get pummeled by a green knight. Did they ever make a knight-themed Power Rangers series? Because if they're thinking about it, they should ask this guy who his tailor is.
Crossed Swords is only one-and-a-half stages old, but already it's settling into a predictable pattern - each stage is broken into several short areas containing a few enemies, almost all of which are defeated using the same block-and-attack combat mechanics. The knights are really no different from the mutants, apart from having longer and more damaging combos and laughing an incredibly smug laugh whenever they manage to hit you with said combo.
Before long you come to a castle under attack by the same bad guys who have been harassing you since step bloody one of this journey, so you do your knightly duty and start stabbing them. Or, in this case, using magic on them. Each weapon comes free with its own magic spell that can be activated by pressing the B button, with a limited number of uses that can be recharged by collecting power-ups. Pictured above is the Mist Sword's spell, which summons a mini-tornado-thing that hangs around the screen for a while and hurts any enemy that touches it. I know that sounds pretty lame but it's actually one of the better ones. Your starting sword just launches indistinct red lumps that do almost no damage, and some later weapons let you become invincible briefly but never at the right time (or so it seemed to me). There is one spell that I really love, but we'll see that later. For now, let's head into the castle.
You know the phrase "eyed with suspicion"? I think I've stumbled onto the perfect digital representation of it, distrust crystallised into a pixellated lattice of wary courtiers and semi-interested kings. Their wariness is well placed - after all, I have just barged into their throne room, the blood of many giant mice congealing on the blade of my sword.
The king, as kings are wont to do, charges you with the noble yet arduous task of overthrowing the dark tyranny that Nausizz has spread over the land like some kind of diabolical margarine. I know, I was shocked too, I thought they were going to ask me to mow the lawns or something.
So off I go in search of adventure and hang on a minute, the king's daughter was standing right there. She's still in the castle. This isn't, against all odds, a quest to rescue a kidnapped princess! The shackles are broken, the imagination is unfurled, a wonderous vista of storyline possibilities is shining out ahead of me!
Nuts. Princess rescue it is, then. I admire the cheek of Nausizz's forces to break into the throne room and abduct the princess while the hero of the game is standing right there, but it's still annoying to have the promise of a break from tradition - however small it might have been, I'm still single-handedly fighting an evil overlord here - taken away from me. Maybe the boss will cheer me up?
Yep, that's better. He's a goat-soldier. He goes "baa" when you hit him. I enjoyed hitting him, and then he was dead.
From here on, Crossed Swords heads down a familiar fantasy game path of traversing the great outdoors, raiding castles fighting the same enemies as before but in different colours, with the occasional new bad guy thrown in to keep things at least a little interesting.
Stage three takes place in a huge spiral tower, and the new enemies here - there's rarely more than one new opponent per stage - are these winged knights. They can't fly or anything, so they're a lot like the other knights but with bigger health bars.
To their credit, ADK at least tried to keep things interesting by offering a choice of routes, although a choice between "this way for weapons" and "this way for a small boost to your current health" was not the most difficult I've ever had to make. I'll get my health back when I continue anyway, and as I've been dying a lot I won't have to wait long for that to happen.
Heading for the armoury (or as the game calls it, the "ammunition warehouse") leads to an encounter with this bright-eyed young blacksmith. I'm extremely impressed by this - not only is this blacksmith a woman, but she's dressed in a modest, almost practical manner, with nary an exposed midriff or heaving bosom in sight. Good work, ADK.
The friendly blacksmith even gives you a new sword, and it turned out to be my favourite sword of them all due to its inbuilt magical power. Sure, being able to summon whirling lightning storms and hurl fireballs is okay, I guess, but this is much more useful (and humiliating.)
Activate your magic near a normal enemy, and they turn into a hopping scarecrow/puppet/sentient tree with barely any health and no way to defend itself. Because this is an arcade game and I therefore had infinite credits, the first time I fought a knight with this new power I let it hit me, waited for it to laugh its oh-so-sarcastic laugh and then turned it into Worzel Gummidge. Not so funny now, huh? I don't know if that's what they call "metagaming," but by god it was satisfying.
The boss is a jester with the wonderfully over-the-top name of Death Masquerader, and as jesters are only one small step away from being clowns it's your solemn duty to make sure he doesn't live to see another children's party. He likes to fire projectiles, which is already becoming standard for bosses and normal enemies alike, but what he doesn't like to do is block. This worked out great for me, because by this point I'd just about figured out how our hero's other set of magic worked.
As in every beat-em-up worth its salt, pressing A and B at the same time activates a special move that drains a small amount of your health. Actually, that's doing a disservice to the Knight of Journey's martial prowess, because he actually has three special moves. Up, A and B launches a fireball ahead of you, down, A and B creates a small blast that pushes enemies away, and simply pressing A and B together causes our hero to slash wildly in front of them like he's being attacked by a swarm of invisible bees. This can do big damage, but most bosses will block it. Not Death Masquerader, though. He just gets sliced up, and the amount of health a lost from activating my special move is far less than if I had actually tried to fight him mano-a-mano. Onward!
Now we're on the beach, and the beach can mean only one thing - frogs! Are there any saltwater frogs? I'm not sure, but between this guy and the mouse-rat soldiers from earlier we're only a badger away from recasting Wind in the Willows as a medieval hack-and-slash adventure. I also like that the frog has big metal claws, because it allows me to make a pun as bad as calling him Froggy Krueger. Look, no-one said you were going to be getting sophisticated Wildean wit here, just battle-frogs and gormless fishmen.
Yes, fishmen - goofy, wall-eyed trout-people with maces and skin that looks like a close-up of some hideous venereal disease. Nausizz's army becomes less menacing by the second, sliding further into ridiculousness when you manage to hit the fishmen. Remember when I was fighting that goat and it baa-ed at me whenever I hurt it? The fishmen make a sound, too. The problem is, fish don't make noises. They don't vocalise and beyond possibly "bloop bloop" they don't have a recognisable sound associated with them. So how did ADK get around this? They gave the fishmen the voice of a seal. Well, seals are sort of like fish, right? They both live in the sea, so it's cool, just make the fishmen go "HURNK HUUURNK" like a distressed sea lion whenever they take damage. It really is a lot of fun, and for that reason alone I'm going on the record to state that the fishmen are the best enemies in the whole of Crossed Swords.
Something something giant enemy crab. The aquatic theme continues with the boss, which as you can see is a very big crab. This turned out to be my favourite fight in the game and the moment where the controls and gameplay came together just right for a fast-paced and tense battle, with the crab's attacks coming at just the right speed - not so slow that blocking them was a formality, but not so fast that I just had to guess where to hold my shield. It was... fun. Yes, there's definitely fun to be had in this game, but we're only at the end of stage four and things quickly begin to drag.
The core gameplay is fine, enjoyable even, and certainly different enough to merit at least a little of your attention, but the problem is that's all there is to Crossed Swords. New enemies fight just like old enemies but a bit faster, the only new challenge coming from the ever-increasing health bars of your opponent, and the game quickly become repetitive as you slowly chip away the various life-bars put in front of you. I personally think Crossed Swords would be much improved if it included more enemies with less health, with the weaker enemies being dispatched with a simple parry-and-thrust that would still keep you on your toes in regard to defending yourself but without all the tedium of waiting for the enemy to attack, blocking, doing them a small amount of damage and then waiting for them to come close again. Save the long, drawn-out battles for the boss fights, to make them feel more like a duel with a worthy opponent.
Speaking of worthy opponents, the boss of stage six is called Satan Goat. I'm sure you'll agree that this was definitely a fact worth mentioning. I hope that's his given name, chosen with care by his loving goat parents. Now I want to know what that goat from stage two was called. Asmodeus Goat? Lucifer Goat? Steve Goat? I really should start a database of all the things I've mentioned on VGJunk that sounds like the names of metal bands, although "Skull Eater" will probably always be my favourite.
The final stage is an assault on Nausizz's very Castlevania-looking stronghold, guarded by all the monsters and most of the bosses you've already fought. Re-fighting the bosses is something you'll be doing a lot of in Crossed Swords - you fight that bloody caterpillar about five times, and it doesn't ever get any more enjoyable than it was the first time. It never even turns into a giant, fire-breathing butterfly, either. Actually, that's probably for the best.
I'll give credit where it's due, though, and say that I really love the graphics in this game. The backgrounds are interesting and nicely detailed, the character sprites have a pleasing (and very Neo-Geo-y) chunkiness to them and the enemy designs are fun. The various knights manage to be visually interesting while still looking like, you know, knights, and the animal soldiers provide a nice change of pace while adding a layer of weirdness to the proceedings that really improves the atmosphere. Satan Goat is great, and it's very hard to dislike those fishmen, although that's probably because you can only see and hear them and not smell them. I feel deep sympathy for the laundry division of Nausizz's army.
Here's the big boss himself, resplendent in his enormous puffy trousers and Rumplestiltskin boots. I'm beginning to suspect that this world conquest attempt is just Nausizz's way of exacting revenge on all those who have mocked him in the past. It's a long list, hence why he needs to conquer the entire world.
Before you fight, he gives you the usual villainous spiel about admiring your bravery but you will still die and all that, but he also releases the princess as a sign of just how impressed he is at the tenacity the Knight of Journey has shown. I'm still a bit fuzzy on just why he kidnapped the princess in the first place - she's obviously not required for some dark ritual, and I don't think Nausizz was in the market for a wife, so did he just abduct her to prove a point? They probably kick you out of the Villain's Guild if you don't keep up an average of at least one princess kidnapped per calendar year, so Nausizz was just keeping his quota up. It was nothing more than a business arrangement, but then not everyone can have the deep and meaningful abductor-abductee relationship shared by Bowser and Princess Peach.
Nausizz fights with kung fu. As such, he is alarmingly easy to beat. There is a lot of satisfaction to be gained from blocking his punches with your shield and then bashing his head in with your sword. I feel I'm teaching him a valuable lesson in the art of war.
Of course, things don’t stay that simple forever and Nausizz transforms into... oh for Christ's sake, that's another caterpillar, isn't it? It's even got the same infuriating fire-breathing moves, plus a new one that I think is actually undodgeable. It's a long, draining fight that's not exciting enough to feel climactic but not simple enough to be dull, and in the end I resorted to using the A and B special whenever the opportunity presented itself. I think that might be the way you're supposed to do it, because without whirling your blades around like an overexcited combine harvester you don't stand much chance of getting more than one hit in.
You'll beat him eventually, and the Knight of Journey has saved the day for everyone who isn't a sentient fish/goat/mouse/frogman (delete where applicable.)
The Knight of Journey is victorious because he never stopped believing, fighting faithfully against the evil forces arrayed against him, and forevermore he will offer his mettle to the princess any way she wants it.
The king doesn't look impressed, but he does ask you to move in so I guess their relationship is more serious than I first thought.
Now, the big question, did I have fun playing Crossed Swords? I suppose the answer is yes, there were definitely times that I had fun but by god this game tried its damnedest to crush the pleasure out of itself. As I said, the actual swordfighting is pretty good fun. There's enough back-and-forth with the tougher enemies for it to almost feel like you're fighting a real duel, but the game contains nothing beyond that. The progression of the game boils down to "you know that enemy you just beat? Beat them again and again, except each time you fight them it takes longer." It's not a very satisfying feeling.
There are two games that I can't help but compare Crossed Swords to. The first is Super Punch-Out - both fighting games viewed through a wireframe model of your character where blocking and timing your attacks correctly are the key to victory. Super Punch-Out wins out because all your opponents are different and, unlike Crossed Swords, you never have to resort to guessing where the enemy is going to attack. If you're a fan of Super Punch-Out, though, you'll probably enjoy this - just not as much.
The other game is The Super Spy, a first-person beat-em-up on the Neo Geo that has some fun ideas but is ultimately hampered by repetition and a lack of gameplay innovation. I can't imagine why I'm reminded of that.