Swords and Serpents (Interplay, 1990)
Light a torch and step into the dungeon with Bryan as he takes a look at this 1990 RPG for the NES!
For the hundredth time, I’ll repeat myself: I am deeply, deeply into the fantasy shit. In particular, I am really into anything that even remotely emulates Dungeons & Dragons. There’s just something about a band of adventurers descending into caverns, ruins, and other dangerous places to hunt for loot or die trying… it’s the stuff legends are made of. Well, legends or bloodbaths, I guess. Either way… *puts on dumb helmet and picks up ridiculously huge axe* count my ass IN.
in 1990, the whole concept was still pretty hot in popular culture, at least hot enough to try and sell some NES cartridges. Interplay strapped on its gear and lit its torch to bring us Swords and Serpents, a game that takes the general premise of D&D (as well as some of its terminology) and crunches it down ever-so-gently so it can be presented in an 8 bit format. There’s a lot to like about this game, but there’s plenty I wish were different as well. It’s a visually beautiful and carefully authentic dungeon-crawl that stays very true to formula, but it’s still got some holes in it.
NOTE: I would like to stress that this game bears no relation to the identically titled Intellivision game, and at no time am I talking about that game. In fact, I have had almost no exposure to the Intellivision, except I know a He-Man game came out for it and I’m forever pissed that Mattel was so exclusive with its licensing back then. But that’s an axe we can grind some other day…
The game starts up and you’re presented with the choice to make your own group of heroes or use the default one. Do what you will, but the default one’s really not bad and choosing it saves you a little time diddling around. You’ll want the same basic setup anyway: two characters who can beat the shit out of monsters by way of weapons (warrior and thief, really just two different styles of murder), and two magic-using people (who can both do some hurting and some healing). Minor details don’t factor in. Besides, you’re probably just going to see them all die.
Let’s talk about that… palette swaps and all, Swords and Serpents has a surprising array of monsters who are more than happy to mechanically separate you like they worked at the Tyson plant and you were chicken meant for dog food. Skeletons, spiders the size of tanks, wandering asshole wizards… I’ve provided as much of a visual bestiary as I felt I could without just making this article one big gallery of scary shit. The lavish and horrid detail in which some of these creatures are rendered not only impresses me (since 8 bit graphics do tend to constrain more than release an artist’s details) but also provides a bit of a visceral shock when some of them crop up.
As you can see, plenty of these screenshots show (by way of the convenient bar graphs representing the party’s life/magic meters) my bold adventurers getting their asses handed to them by undead, mutant bats, trolls with switchblades, and whatever the hell that ghastly sneering thing is on the bottom middle.
However, the first thing you encounter is an old lunatic with pretty useless information.
Once he leaves you alone, you’re free to wander and find your way into certain goddamn death. I found that biding my time and carefully picking battles weighed in my group’s favor (and fleeing like a fucking coward when outmatched) was a capital strategy early on. I was actually able to get fairly far in the game on my first go, and not just because I’m so intimately familiar with dungeon-crawling that it hurts. You also want to keep everyone as healthy as you can with your magicians’ healing spells, because… well, there’s something in RPGs called action-economy, and you don’t want to be wasting time DURING a fight casting a spell you could have cast BEFORE it… but you’ll still have to do that plenty anyway. Division of labor is the rule of the day… have your whackers whack and your healers heal. To reiterate… YOU MAY STILL JUST GET WIPED. The dungeon, she does not forgive, nor is her kiss a gentle one.
You’re able to go into characters’ inventories and access their spellbooks fairly easily, and the menus aren’t clumsy or counter-intuitive like can happen so often in this genre of video games. The only thing that bothers me from an aesthetic standpoint is that there is no “you.” That is to say, the adventuring party is not represented at all, really; Swords and Serpents shows you only the first-person and top-down representations of the space you’re invading… and anything that’s trying to murder you.
Flight. Listed below and very separately, so you know it’s for running away like a bitch.
The end goal is to make it down to the titular Serpent, who is every bit as doleful and horrible as some of the other monsters. He is also capable of constantly, FREQUENTLY attacking without much delay or space between, so you’d better have a plan going in and be buff enough to handle this shit. I never made it anywhere near this far but the playthrough I saw showed me the default strategy: dump everything destructive you have on the Serpent while doing your damnedest to keep everyone not-dead.
The music is pretty kickin’. It’s nothing worth gushing over for too long, but the tunes do get stuck in your head. It’s good RPG music. It fits really well and is probably the best part next to the grotesquely awesome monster graphics.
I’m going to be cruel on Swords and Serpents and give it 6/10. It’s visually impressive where Interplay chose to pour that magic into it, but it lacks depth in terms of immersion and really can get tedious after too long. It’s a game you definitely can’t play for long spans, but it’s fun if you frequently save and take breaks. It’s a worthwhile entry into the NES’s RPG library, and worth a look if you’ve never played.