Sword Master is a game that made me really think hard if it was deserving of a 2 1/2 star score or 3. Ultimately, I gave it three stars because it's fun, challenging, and oddly compelling, but there are some flaws that keep it from going beyond that.
Sword Master's style of play is similar to the combat system of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. As an archetypical knight in shining armor, you use your sword to slay foes, but you must also master the skill of blocking with a shield as well. This shield is what gives Sword Master its unique flavor among NES sidescrollers. The focus isn't on killing enemies before they can reach you, but rather on going toe-to-toe while properly attacking and defending. It sits on a line somewhere between action platformers and beat-em-ups without ever feeling completely like one or the other.
Each enemy encounter in Sword Master is like a boss fight unto itself (with the exception of the minor, one-hit-kill enemies like the bats and wolves). When you meet a new foe, you must learn how best to deal with it. Just barely getting by will not cut it, since you may have to fight the same enemy twice in one stage, or something worse might come after it. This is the kind of game where the main boss of a stage becomes a mini-boss in the very next. Much of the challenge of these bosses comes from intimidation. When you approach a new boss, you won't know what to do. You'll either hesitate in trying to think of a plan or rush right in. Either way, you'll probably get clobbered, especially against the tougher guys. Once you know exactly how close you need to jump toward an enemy, and how best to defend or evade its attacks, it's a matter of just being really aggressive.
To illustrate a few examples, the first level boss is a wizard who disappears and reappears around the screen. His pattern is simple enough: block up for his falling rain attack, block low for his fireball, hit him when he's close, and keep moving after he disappears so that he doesn't reappear right on top of you. His attacks are obvious, therefore easily dealt with. But the boss of the second stage is a knight who relies purely on sword fighting. You can't really predict his moves, so you have to be a better sword fighter than he is to win. I just replayed Sword Master before writing this review, and I discovered that a very aggressive leap in while attacking, leap away, block when necessary tactic worked wonders against most of these bosses. Even in cases where more elaborate attack-and-block routines worked before, this was faster and better.
The exceptions to this are the last three bosses (all fought in a row). I used an alternate strategy for the first two, but the final boss, unfortunately, is a "battle of attrition". This is when you have no real means of evading or blocking a boss's attacks, so the two of you pound away at each other until one of you goes down. The only way to beat this final boss is to have a maxed-out life meter, be very quick, and get lucky.
Which brings me to another point - Sword Master is an action game, but it has a very unusual experience-building system. You earn a bit of experience with each enemy you kill. Earn enough, and your life meter increases. The strange part is that your life meter stays permanently increased so long as you don't turn off the game. Even if you use all of your continues and start again from the beginning, your life meter and earned experience is still exactly where it was when you left off. This has both its good and bad points. It's good because you don't have to worry about building up again from scratch when you get a "game over". It's bad because I have gotten to the final boss without using a single continue, and it would appear that if you never continue you cannot fight enough enemies within one play to reach the maximum level, thereby rendering you unable to defeat the final boss. Because of this, I had to play through the entire game again, from the beginning, just to go up that one level necessary to finish him off. It would have been better to purposefully use a continue in an earlier stage to max out.
Although the main focus of Sword Master is on its battles (stages 1, 3, 5 and 7 don't even have any pits), it has its fair share of platforming. I think Level 4 is the first part of the game that will truly challenge players, due to its harsh platform jumping sequences. I had such a terrible first time trying to get past this stage that I resorted to an unlimited continues code to practice it. There are very narrow platforms with large pits between them that must be carefully navigated while dealing with minor enemies. Indestructible eyeballs float menacingly between some platforms; colliding with them will send you falling to your doom. Figuring out how to deal with these enemies is one of the game's toughest challenges, so I will not spoil it. Level 6 is different from the other stages in that enemies are pretty much absent and the entire layout is one big obstacle course. You'll carefully crawl through spikes that stab upwards out of the floor, rocks falling from the ceiling, and more invincible bouncing balls. Timing your moves is a key element here. The last level reverts to another boss-a-thon. The blend of fighting and platform action keeps Sword Master interesting from start to finish.
The knight also gains the ability to transform into a wizard, a la Castlevania 3. The wizard can use spells to help you through some tough areas and bosses. This is balanced by having the spells eat up your experience points, so you can't continually blast by everything. If you want to use the wizard's spells against a particular boss, it may be necessary to plan ahead to be sure you'll have enough experience points.
Sword Master has very competent NES graphics and music. If you've heard anything about this game before, chances are you've heard about its parallax scrolling - something that was not often or easily done on the NES. Some of it is accomplished through line scrolling, while the rest appears to be true parallax. Though the artistry of the backgrounds isn't the best I've seen, the effect is amazing. The energetic music, which bears some similarity to Konami's NES soundtracks, is quite good, and it's nice that each level has a different theme song. The opening cinema scenes are done with an impressive, anime-inspired style, but the game has no dialogue, and no other cinemas aside from the meager ending. (I have heard that Sword Master is a sequel of sorts to Athena's earlier NES game, Castle of Dragon, but I don't know what the games have in common as I haven't played the latter.)
For everything that Sword Master does right, it has some glaring flaws, mostly in the form of glitches. I'm usually not too hard on games for having glitches, but it's annoying when they're so obvious that I can't figure out how they got past play testing. On more than one occasion, my knight has fallen right through a solid floor to his death. I once lost a life on the second boss because of this glitch, and there isn't even a pit on-screen for that battle. I also warn you to never deliver the final blow to a stage boss if he's off-screen. If you do, he won't drop the item he's carrying, which could result in making the game unbeatable. This glitch once caused me to miss the wizard powerup. Being unable to change into the wizard, I couldn't pass a certain spot in a later level. The other major flaw is the final boss, which I already mentioned. I would have preferred a more legitimately challenging final boss, and sometimes the game locks up while I'm fighting him. (This has happened twice, so I'm inclined to believe it's a flaw in the game and not dirt in my cartridge or NES.) Finally, Sword Master becomes rather easy once mastered, and there is no second quest.
Sword Master isn't groundbreaking, but its somewhat-unique approach to the platform genre makes it worth giving a try. It's amazing how much this game gets out of such a simple attack-and-block combat system. Sometimes, the most simplistic of games are the most fun.
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