Some games are rarer than others. And sometimes, there’s no correlation between a game’s secondhand price and its quality. Games like the SNES version of Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and Final Fantasy VI (First called “Final Fantasy III” in the US) command a high price for a reason–they’re classic RPGs that sold very few copies on their original releases, and only received North American attention once Final Fantasy VII proved that RPGs could be cool games too. Other games, though, are expensive just because they’re rare, not because they’re good.
Developed by Athena in 1990, but not released in the US until 1992 by Activision, Sword Master tells a tale nearly as old as time itself. The evil Fire Mage summons a terrible beast, Vishok, to wreak destruction upon the world. The tandem also kidnap a woman who may or may not be the Princess of the land (The game doesn’t make it clear). It’s up to you, as the Sword Master, to travel across the wasted land and save the woman, and the world.
The gameplay is as simple as the plot. Much like Super Mario Bros, you can only move in one direction, right. In the odd numbered levels, that’s all there is to the non-combat movement. These levels have multiple minibosses before the proper boss fight. The even numbered levels throw in a bit of platforming action, featuring pits and obstacles to get in your way, but only have the main boss in terms of “strong” enemies.
In each of the game’s seven levels, you’ll gain experience as you kill the enemies. Filling up your experience resets it to zero, while increasing your maximum health. But there’s a twist. After level 2, you’ll acquire a staff, and you can then hit Select to transform into a Magician. Beating later levels will unlock stronger magic. The catch? To use anything other than the most basic magic, you’ll need to use your Experience Points, which also function as Magic Points. Level up at the wrong time, and you’ll be without your magic for tough boss battles.
The other interesting dimension to the combat is the variety of sword swings you can use in Knight form. You can either do a straight stab, or an overhead swing. You can combine the former with a crouch, and the latter with a jump, for increased power. Indeed, the damage you deal to enemies is frame-based, and enemies have almost no invincibility frames, meaning you tend to hope that they just charge at you and you can then destroy them with repeated overhead swings. The thing is that most of the time, the boss-type enemies like to hang out just outside of your range, meaning continually jumping toward them and overhead striking until you near the edge of the screen, then retreating, is often the optimal strategy when using the Knight.
Sword Master offers a mere five continues out of the box. This isn’t a lot, especially at first, when you’re trying to figure out how to navigate the instant-death pits and the associated obstacles of the even-numbered levels. You’ll find that it’s enough, though. The game’s stages are all short, to the point that the entire game can be beaten in under fifteen minutes without even trying to go fast. And that’s the game’s second-biggest flaw–there’s just not enough substance to it. Its biggest flaw is that, at least on my copy, Sword Master is prone to crashing on the final boss. I’m not sure what causes it, or if it was just my copy of the game, but I recall Nintendo Power mentioning a “trap” in that fight, which makes me wonder if there was a reliable way to trigger the crash that I never figured out.
In the end, Sword Master isn’t a bad game per se. It’s a spiritual sequel to Castle of Dragon, and thankfully, Athena did learn a lot between that game and this one. But because of the combination of the game’s release late in the NES lifecycle, and its rarity due to lack of sales (As one review noted, in order to properly call the game “underrated”, it would’ve had to be rated at all upon its release), the game sells for stupid amounts of money at present. It was also never re-released, which means my verdict is “If ye be a scurvy pirate, then sail the seas of emulation for Sword Master. If ye have never sinned, though, stay away.”