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Swords and Serpents Spotlight Review

On the last Retro Game Review Podcast, you heard fellow Arbitrarian, Joe, and myself talk about fantasy video games. Well, last week my big brother gave me a fantasy video game as a gift for standing up in his wedding. At the grooms dinner, he gave me a gift bag that included an Intellivision t-shirt and a copy of Swords and Serpents. My brother Jeff and my cousin Mark are the two responsible for introducing me to video games when I was little. Now that I’m 30 years old, I love the fact that my older brother took the opportunity at his wedding to continue to introduce me to video games, love ya bro! Oh and Mark, I’ll see you this weekend at your wedding! We’re all growing up so fast.

Now some of you might be wondering why I’m even talking about these kinds of games. I’ve made no secret about my feelings for fantasy RPG games in previous reviews. I’m not a fan and I just feel those kinds of games are better suited for the dinner table than the television. For me, video games have always been about the hardware. I want to see what a video game console is capable of. Fantasy games are big fans of displaying paragraph after paragraph of text on the screen which you have to read in order to play the game, this doesn’t impress me. Almost every game console in existence can display text. I like to see what the hardware can do when it’s challenged a bit with games that push the hardware to its limits with graphics and sound.

Fantasy RPG's can look good graphically like Phantasy Star seen here but the action is still hampered by traditional RPG controls

Now, I’m not saying that because a game is heavy on reading text that it’s a bad game. I’m not even saying that fantasy games in general are bad. I don’t mind reading and I have a “Book It!” pin covered with stickers to prove it. I just need more happening on the screen to grab a hold of my very short span of attention. Enter Swords and Serpents. The Intellivision is a game console that does fantasy games right and Swords and Serpents is a perfect example of that.


Swords and Serpents Game Play

Fantasy games are loaded with action, action that I want to see and participate in. Since the Intellivision doesn’t have the hardware to produce large detailed graphical maps, characters, and items, it has to focus on the action and game play elements of fantasy games. There’s still text you can read to find out the back story of a game like Swords and Serpents but that text is in the form of the written word on the box and in the instruction manual, right where it should be. In fact, reading the instruction manual before you play Swords and Serpents is pretty much mandatory so you know what the fuck to do when you start playing the game. After a quick read through, I was ready to start my quest through the Serpent’s Fortress.

A map of the first level can be found in the instruction manual, it's insanely useful and looks pretty cool too!

Swords and Serpents follows a young warrior prince that is avenging the death of his father, the King. Their lands have been conquered by the evil Serpent and it’s up to you to reclaim your kingdom. This is no easy task as you will need the help of the former Royal Court Wizard, Nilrem, who now lives in exile. Nilrem uses his wizarding ways to strengthen your sword and armor to protect you on your quest. All he asks in return for his services is that you take him with you as this old wizard wants to go on one last adventure.
The game is displayed in an over head layout. The instruction manual actually says that before you and Nilrem left his place of exile, Nilrem passed his hand over a pool of water which then made the water reflect back an over head view of the fortress. So, just keep in mind when you’re playing this game that you’re actually looking down on a pool of water that’s been enchanted by Nilrem. You walk through four levels of the Fortress collecting treasure as you fight off Phantom Knights and Red Sorcerers as you hunt down the evil Serpent. It might sound like there’s more to this game but there’s not. Seriously, all you do is walk around and collect treasure while fighting off enemies. There’s no music as the only things you hear is your footsteps and the clanging sounds of swords when you’re battling the Phantom Knights.
Controlling the warrior prince is pretty easy as you use the dial on the Intellivision controller to move in any direction. When you’re controlling the Warrior Prince, the only functions you have to worry about are reading scrolls and picking up items. Yes, you have to read a little in this game as there are scrolls scattered throughout each level that can be used to collect power ups or as warps that can move you around in the levels. Since the Warrior Prince has only his sword to fight off enemies, the power ups given by the scrolls are only useful to Nilrem the Wizard.

The overlays for each controller

This game can be played with either one or two players but you can also play a solo co-op mode where you can control both the Prince and Nilrem in the game. Nilrem has a variety of things he can do using his wizard powers. He can break down walls, shoot fire balls, heal, and freeze things. For as useful as the wizard is though, it can be a little much moving your character and him at the same time since you have to use separate controllers for each character. This is like playing Mario Brothers in 2 player mode by yourself with Mario and Luigi on the screen at the same time. You can leave the wizard in one spot and come back to him when you need him but if he moves off the screen he won’t be able to help you. Also, if you leave him behind he’ll wonder off so when you go back to look for him he won’t be where you left him.
To advance in the game you need to find keys. These keys unlock doors to stair cases that take you to the next level. The stair cases stay open and can be used to go back a level if you need to. While there’s plenty of treasure to collect while you search for these keys, you can skip the treasure and go straight for the keys to advance faster. All the treasure does is give you extra lives if you collect enough of it. Also, to store your treasure you have to put it in a chest on the first level meaning that all the treasure you collect on levels 2,3,4 have to be taken to level 1 in order to store it and get credit for it. This pissed me off a bit since it made think it wouldn’t have taken that much more memory to code in chests for each level but the ending of this game explained to me why there’s only one chest. Your character moves slow so treasure collecting can be a very time consuming chore.

That yellow and black box is a doorway to the next staircase

The graphics are what you would expect from an Intellivision game released in 1983. Sure, they’re basic, but they’re good enough to show that you are, in fact, walking around in a fortress. Treasure items look fairly rough so when you see some random stationary thing on the screen, it’s safe to assume it’s treasure. Keys look like keys so those stick out when you’re playing. Scrolls can be hard to identify at first but when you find one you will probably say “Oh, that does kind of look like a scroll.” just like I did when I played this game.

That weird looking thing to your right is a scroll

Enemies are easy to identify as the Phantom Knights are the black things that pass through walls that basically impale themselves on your sword as they charge towards you. Red Sorcerers are also easy to see but these fuckers will materialize out of thin air, usually behind you, and shoot you with a fire ball before you can turn and block it with your sword. Speaking of swords, when you play this game you might wonder why your sword looks like a glowing light saber. The instruction manual tells us that the sword glows because of the magical powers that Nilrem cast into it, oh, ok.
As for the game sounds, I said earlier that there’s no music in this game. All you hear is the foot steps of your character and the clanging of swords when you’re battling the Phantom Knights. There’s also some classic Intellivision pops and hisses when Red Sorcerers appear and when Nilrem casts his spells. I love that this game doesn’t have music since it kind of gives it a dark feel of sorts. There’s no cheesy medieval music to lighten the mood as hunting down the evil Serpent that took your lands is serious business.
Now, for my favorite part of the game, the ending, there isn’t one. “You mean there’s no Serpent?” No, there’s a serpent all right but you don’t kill him. Once you reach the fourth level with the Serpent, you find that he’s guarding two pieces of treasure. When you use Nilrem to destroy the walls of the Serpents lair, you go in and collect the final pieces of treasure and then three letters appear, B.P.D. BPD? What the hell is BPD? Turns out the games developer didn’t have that much memory to work with after all. The developer, Brian P. Dougherty ran out of memory on the cartridge so he couldn’t program in a final battle with the Serpent. You simply collect the final pieces of treasure and then stare at Brian’s initials, B.P.D. Pretty cool, huh?

The end of Swords and Serpents

I love games from the Intellivision era because it was the only time in gaming where a game could have no ending simply because there wasn’t enough memory to program one in. This ties into my love of gaming hardware because Brian P. Dougherty did as much as he could with the memory space he was given. He coded in four rather large levels by Intellivision standards, and filled them with as much action as he could to provide a decent gaming experience that simply didn’t have a stellar ending. Hmmmm….maybe the Intellivision era wasn’t the only time in gaming where this was acceptable. Maybe something like this explains the ending of Mass Effect 3. Mind blown. Happy Gaming!



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