Barbarian 2 was released very shortly after Exile. I remember this well because Exile graced the cover of the first issue the Mercury Games Software Catalogue, and Barbarian 2 fronted the second. Exile was in my Christmas stocking; Barbarian 2 was what I bought with my birthday cash three months later. Both had the same software publisher and the wowtastic Exile had seemingly ushered in a new breed of Acorn gaming. In doing so, it had also made a bit of a rod for Superior/Acornsoft's back. Was anything going to even come close to that masterwork?
There was a similar blaze of publicity about Barbarian 2; this time not due to Maria Whittaker's cleavage. Whilst BBC/Elk owners had had to wait a while (due to licensing issues so I believe) for its predecessor, the second coming arrived on all formats simulataneously. And my my, it did look slick. Huge sprites, a nice big playing area and cartoon-style animation. And let's not forget, three big bosses to take care of on the final level!
The game is a graphic adventure with the tagline 'The Dungeon of Drax', challenging you to traverse wastelands, caverns and the dungeons to finish off Herr Drax once and for all. The original Barbarian is a beat-'em-up so the format of graphic adventure is quite a departure. Plus, the original was somewhat notorious for its decapitation chop but this is not carried through to this sequel. Conversely, the rest of the fighting moves survive though, making it somewhat notable by its absence (if you've ever played the original, that is!).
You have the option to play either the original "Barbarian" of the title, or the princess who he rescued in part one. Both are nimble creatures, able to kick, chop, hack and bat the enemy who himself comes in the form of everything from cavemen to mutant chicken. Each enemy appears in an eruption of smoke which adds a great deal of ambiance to the game. I also love the shrunken heads, complete with hair waving in the wind, that litter the backgrounds. In fact, there are so many different sprites in this game that you may wonder how on earth the programmer managed to cram them all in!
Sound is also utilised effectively, with advancing monsters exploding onto the screen, bleeping their approach to you and crying out when you whack them with your trusty axe.
There is quite a lot to pay attention to in Barbarian 2. Firstly, there are the obvious ogres and monsters who need to be avoided or clubbed into the next life. Secondly, there are the not quite so obvious dangers such as foreground scenery that trips you up (if you do not jump it!) and, of course, the 'pits of doom' that you need to navigate around because you cannot jump over them. Thirdly, there are the objects you need to collect. On level one, the wastelands, you are on a quest for an orb and a shield. Fourthly, there is the compass at the very bottom of the screen that apparently will guide you through the level - although I personally do not trust it. And finally there are the caves that you can enter by simply standing in front of them and pressing SPACE.
The mission is to reach Drax's lair by traversing three levels and this is where the first problem is found. You are given no warning at all if a subsequent level is about to be loaded in - so if you find yourself suddenly on level two and you didn't find the orb on your previous attempt at level one, well that's just tough titty because you can't go back for it.
The second problem connects with this in that the six magical items, scattered two to a level, are required to be collected else your battles with the final three hoodlums will result in no other outcome than your death. On the Spectrum version, the programmer got around the problem of the player happened to encounter the 'final' screen of each level by having a scale of notes play; this at least indicates to the player that he is on the verge of progressing to the next level (and gives him the opportunity to double-back and seek out any missing item(s) before the multi-loader does its stuff retrieving it.
The final problem is that the game is far, far too easy. You get three lives, each with an energy bar that can stand a lot of physical damage, there are numerous power-ups on each level, and if you are killed you return not to the very beginning but rather just to the beginning of that particular level. I didn't quite complete it on my first go, but after having completed it in just half an hour, I felt the difficulty level was set far too low for it to feel like much of a challenge.
There are a few other minor glitches too. Whilst the sprites and animation may look very attractive, the collision detection is sometimes a bit poor. It can also be impossible to prevent yourself toppling backwards into a pit when a bad guy appears right on top of you and immediately attacks. Positioning yourself in front of a cave also suffers from the same type of problem. It is irksome rather than infuriating; a consequence presumably of having very big sprites which need to be positioned perfectly.
If you make a map then you can quickly work out what route leads past the magical objects you need, and this means you won't find yourself stranded on level four unable to progress! The strangest thing is that I feel Barbarian 2 is a great game for younger players. It has all the necessary elements - play as man or woman, control cute and cuddly sprites, watch animation, enjoy many changes of scene and a low difficulty level. In context, i.e. after the lopping off of cavemen's heads in the first airing, this seems especially curious. The verdict? Well, nowhere near in the same league as the amazing Exile but a handsome and playable adventure despite its problems.