Let's be honest, it's too late for me to ever be truly great at something. I didn't take up a musical instrument while my age was still in single digits, I haven't spent countless hours honing my body to perfection (unless "grey and squishy" is your idea of perfection) and I'm terrible at studying. By now, I'm too old to ever become great at anything. "But VGJunk," I hear you cry, "you're great at writing long, meandering articles describing videogames nobody cares about!" Thank you, you're terribly sweet but your flattery will get you nowhere. Taito, on the other hand - they might get somewhere. They're offering me one last chance to become great, and that chance has come in the form of their 1984 arcade game Great Swordsman.
Great Swordsman is a one-on-one fighting game from the dark and murky time before Street Fighter II gave that particular genre a mighty kick up the arse, so I'm a little dubious about the kind of quality we're going to find here. Still, it's got "great" right there in the title, so it can't be that bad.
Yes, there are two things to do in this game - fight battles so exciting they requite two exclamation marks and enroll you name, hopefully into a good, respectable university.
Enrolling my name was easy enough, let's hope the battles are too.
Alright, it's a fencing simulator. I'm happy with that - I don't think I've ever played a fencing game , and as a kid I always quite fancied to get into the sport. I suspect this is true of many unathletic teenage boys who thought of Tolkien and Moorcock rather than a bikini car wash when they heard the word "fantasy." In the end I never got into fencing, partly due to the expense but mostly because I wasn't cool and I knew dressing like a cross between a beekeeper and a mattress wasn't going to change that.
I'm sure it's obvious to you, but your goal here is to stab your opponent. Specifically, you have to stab them five times to win the bout and move on to the next challenger, and to facilitate this whirling carnival of cold steel you have three attack buttons: high, middle and low. Press the high attack button to attack high, press low to strike low, you get the idea... although saying that you "press" the buttons is a little misleading because in order to perform your move in full you have to hold the button down. Just tapping the button makes you move your weapon to the desired height, which is helpful because it allows you to block attacks coming in on the same plane, but for those lunging blows you'll have to hold the button down for a good second or so.
Et voilà, one perforated C-3PO. So far, the most satisfying part of Great Swordsman is the noise your opponent makes when you poke them: they say "ow!" in a deep bass voice with an unmistakable trace of hurt feelings, like it was just a fun game that you've taken too far and they didn't really expect you to stab them in the face / protective colander.
Sometimes you're both great swordsmen, and you'll hit each other at the same time. If this happens you both get a point. Fencing is apparently unconcerned with the concept of defending yourself, as long as you get your licks in. That's fine by me, because so far the best strategy seems to be to pile unrelenting pressure on your foe by repeatedly trying to put their eye out with your knitting needle of a sword. I seemed to either hit them and get a point, or we both got stabbed and got a point, or I forced them to scuttle so far backwards that they went off the mat. Step off the mat twice and your opponent gets a point, and by following this simple tactic I managed to defeat the yellow fencer.
As you can see, my fencer celebrated in a very dignified manner that definitely couldn't be interpreted as him thrusting his crotch at his vanquished foe.
The yellow fencer was followed by a green fencer who had the same weakness to being jabbed in the eye, and the green fencer was followed by this red chap. It's been like fighting my way through a through a packet of armed jelly babies.
I've got to say, so far I've been impressed with Great Swordsman. My worries about it being a 2D fighter from before the Capcom revolution were assuaged once I realised that it's not that kind of game at all: it's slow, methodical and all about timing and measuring distances (and, in no small part, blind luck). There are no lightning-fast ripostes here, but your fencer's movements feel smooth and dense at the same time, like a good milkshake, and the fact that a single hit can make all the difference gives it a tense atmosphere that summons up fond memories of Squaresoft's PS1 samurai leg-breaking simulator Bushido Blade. Best of all, the hit detection - an especially vital aspect of the game - seems predictable and reliable. Thumbs up of Great Swordsman's early showing, then.
There are only three fencers to beat before you're crowned King of the Beekeeper Mattress Folk, and comely maidens from all corners of your dominion anoint your head with tossed bouquets of wild flowers. Now that he's unmasked, my fencer reminds me of Chris de Burgh. I really hope I'm not playing as Chris de Burgh. If I have to play as any singer, it should really be Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. He is a fencer who has competed at an international level, after all.
After becoming the world's top fencer, I was allowed to partake in a bonus game for extra points. The bonus game consists of a bizarre golem-like creature firing arrows at you. Block the arrows with your sword and get points, don't block the arrows and they slam into you with a disturbingly impactful "thud" sound and the round is over.
You lose the round as soon as the first arrow hits you, but that doesn't stop the sinister mannequin archer. He'll fire a few more off, just for good measure. I think this whole bonus round may have been constructed just to teach the player that being good with a sword will only get you so far in life, because there'll always be someone with the foresight to bring a ranged weapon.
From one form of swordplay to another as the middle portion of Great Swordsman becomes a kendo tournament. Unsurprisingly, the ancient Japanese art of whacking people with stick while wearing a wicker basket on your head plays almost identically to the fencing section, with high, middle and low attacks. The difference is that you only have to hit your opponent twice in order to beat them, presumably to authentically recreate the strength of a katana's superior Japanese steel when compared to the flimsy weapons of Europe.
The actual swings of your sword take on a slightly different form, too - rather than the epee's high attack of a jab to the face, performing a high attack during the kendo rounds will cause you to (hopefully) deliver a blow to the top of your opponent's head. The raw martial fury of this manoeuvre is somewhat diminished by the fact it looks like someone tapping a dog's head with a rolled-up newspaper.
Curious to see what would happen if I attempted to apply the serene teachings of Zen Buddhism to the art of kendo, I simply stood still in the centre of the ring, stopped moving and touched the tip of my sword against that of my opponents just to make it a little bit creepier. In a rather nice little touch, the green kendo man became understandably confused, as you can see by the little question mark that's popping out of his head. Then he slapped me in the ankles with his wooden sword, which apparently is a killing blow in this particular sport. So much for peaceful resistance.
I noticed a few fun details during the kendo bouts, like having my helmet knocked of and even being pushed to the ground, which doesn't usually happen because the game stops still when someone takes a hit like it was an improv session and the director just called "freeze."
You'll notice that all these little touches revolve around me getting hit. The kendo is definitely harder than the fencing, perhaps because the computer's AI is better or because the wider attacks of kendo leave you more open if you miss, but in the end I managed to defeat the five master swordsmen in front of me to add a kendo championship to the fencing title.
My prize was another assortment of loose flowers. If a man in Japanese armour runs over to your car while you're stopped in a traffic jam and tries to sell you a somewhat wilted bouquet, now you know why.
Another arrow-deflecting minigame followed, and the inscrutable homunculus with the bow has at least gotten into the spirit of the thing and put on some kendo armour. Kyudo, that's the name for traditional Japanese archery. I know you came here to read about videogames but don't worry, the extra cultural education is included in the ticket price.
Say goodbye to the archer, because we won't be seeing him again.
"GOOD-BYE HUMAN IT WAS ENJOYABLE TO SHOOT AT YOU."
I have no idea if it's possible to beat the archer, by the way. If you survive his volley of arrows, he takes a step towards you and fires another twenty, block all those and... well, I assume he keeps stepping forwards but I never survived the second round so your guess is a good as mine.
For the final segment of Great Swordsman, you're transported back to the days of ancient Rome - where you must stab the very gods themselves! The first god is Mars. Mars, the God of War. I think I might be in over my head here.
You know, I think I might be okay. Mars doesn't seem quite on his game today.
Yep, that got him. The rules have changed once again for the gladiatorial area - there are now seven opponents to defeat, but it only takes a single hit to kill or be killed and there're no ring to be pushed out of. Get a clean hit in and you progress to the next god, take a hit and well, hope you had fun because that's a game over. This is Great Swordsman's brutal nature, and if you lose a battle then it's a straight game over with no way to continue. It's not so bad at the start of the game where the points system gives you a little more leeway, but when you reach the Colosseum and you're one strike away from death it can be a little aggravating.
Of course, this also means that the game can move a lot more quickly, with bouts sometimes being decided with the first strike, and on the whole it works fairly well. It's tense, flowing but still deliberate and just plain fun to play.
Your final battle is against Zeus. Zeus is, as I'm sure you know, a Greek god rather than a Roman one but I'll let Taito off - I'm fairly sure I'm not fighting Jupiter for the sole reason that "Jupiter" has one letter too many to fit into the space assigned for names.
Having left his lightning bolts on Mount Olympus, Zeus goes with a back-up strategy of trying to sever my feet. He didn't account for my nimble steps, however, and the fight dragged on for a long, long time. Well, a long time by the standards of Great Swordsman, so about four minutes. Eventually the Father of Gods and Men got bored and went for a stab in the gut, so I bashed his head in with my very blunt-looking sword, finally sealing the title of Great Swordsman.
Another semi-hidden flourish - your victorious fighter usually just stands there beneath the flower-shower, but if you waggle the joystick he'll say thank you to the crowd. The crowd that just watched him slaughter all the gods of their pantheon. They're either going to proclaim him their new celestial overlord, or he's not getting out of this arena alive.
After that, it's back to the start of the game for another run through but with slightly faster and more difficult-to-hit opponents. A tempting prospect, but I think it's time to draw a close to my quest to become a great swordsman. Retire at the top and always leave 'em wanting more, that's what I say.
Despite my early trepidation, Great Swordsman has really won me over and I've developed quite the soft spot for it. It can't compete with later one-on-one fighters, but that's okay because that's not what it's trying to do - this one's all about timing and precision, it does what it sets out to do nicely and as such it's a very jolly way to waste an hour or so. While the gameplay is certainly solid, it's the presentation that gives it that extra edge, with charming graphics and some fun voice samples that are very impressive for a game from 1984. The small touches that pop up unannounced and unexplained throughout the game are great too: I've already mentioned your opponent getting confused by your lack of movement, but my absolute favourite is in the fencing. If you repeatedly attack your opponent's weapon, eventually it'll fly out of their hand, spin through the air and land point-down in their skull.
This gets you the point, too. In a truly just world it'd score you extra points, but as it stands I'll settle for the self-satisfied grin it gave me.
The only real disappointment with Great Swordsman is the lack of a competitive two-player mode, but that aside this is a game that is definitely worth taking a shot at. Oh damn, I should have said "worth taking a stab at." Well, it's too late now.