Barbarian II is a bit of a curveball. By the time it arrived on the Electron, it had already been on the Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64 for about ten months, and, if Superior's marketing was to be believed, Electron owners were all chomping at the bit to get ahold of it. Of course, you can take those claims with a very large pinch of salt. The original was a below par fighting game; its sequel is more a graphic adventure. Admittedly, both games have nice graphics. However, Barbarian II retains all the not-so-nice features of the original, and then adds a few more to the mix for good measure.
To start with the positives, Barbarian II starts with a functional little intro that allows you to choose to play either a male or female warrior; neither warrior brings anything different to the table; the decision merely reflects the game sprite you play with. Whichever character you choose play, your mission is to find your way through the three "lands" and then enter the dungeons of Drax to fight his warriors. Each land multi-loads in, very similarly to The Last Ninja. In fact, even though it's played from the side-on, Barbarian II feels a little bit similar to The Last Ninja. Looking at the inlay, it's no surprise that they are both written by the same author.
The lands you must traverse are inhabited by strange creatures that teleport around by means of purple fountains that erupt from the ground. Once they're in front of you, they bar your way until you beat them into submission; whereupon they teleport away, only to be replaced a few seconds later by a different creature if you dare to hang around. Each of the lands features a different array of creatures but all of them feature an impressive number of walking and fighting moves - some of them are simplistic, like the flying turtle; but others lunge towards you, back away and feint quite realistically to throw you off guard, like the caveman. Indeed, paused screenshots of Barbarian II make the game look very attractive. It's got colour, animation and, with all the different lands, an impressive range of backdrops, even if the playing area is only half the screen's height.
But it's an altogether different story if you try to play the game. Barbarian II has some really serious problems.
Firstly, it's not all that clear exactly what it is that you have to do. The instructions tell you to collect up the two magical objects from each land and then follow the compass, illustrated at the bottom of the screen, to make good your escape. However, unless you make a map, it's all too easy to suddenly find the next land loading in without warning. If you haven't collected the objects you need, then your only option is to reset the game and try again. Some other versions of the game at least give you a warning that you're on the "last" screen of that land so you can make an informed choice about whether you want to leave it or not! Not so here, though.
Secondly, almost every third screen features a pit in the centre of it. In fact, Barbarian II really is the pits in all senses of the word. It's difficult to jump from one side of them to another, because if you go right up to their edge and then try it, you always fall into them instead. It's also very difficult to avoid falling into any pit that's on the same screen when a creature attacks you, because it often prods and pokes at you enough that you step back and lose your balance. And finally, if you run through one or more screens, you can run headlong into one of the pits even if you frantically hammer the jump key a long time before you get to it.
Living in fear of an unexpected multi-load if you edge off a screen, or a fast death if you run off it, certainly doesn't encourage much exploration and, truth be told, the beat-'em-up element also seems patently absurd when the playing areas are so incredibly cramped. You only have four fighting moves and, annoyingly, often you can cycle through all four and not be able to land a single blow on your adversary. If it backs you into a corner, you're pretty much doomed; it will just reign down blows upon you until your energy bar is depleted to zero. When this happens, and you watch it eat up each of your five lives, you can actually feel your frustration factor starting to enter the danger zone.
The biggest problem is not that it's all so incredibly unresponsive but that, when your character does finally respond to your command to lunge, or parry (or run away), a quick jab from the creature interrupts the animation and returns you to the standing position! With almost every creature, it is during its initial approach that it's the critical time to attack. A very well-timed double-chop to the head as it approaches will make short work of it.
With some practice, it's possible to pull this off almost 100% of the time. And what this means is that (a) you can learn the routes to the items and (b) you can learn how to defeat all the enemies with one overhead chopping motion. After only about half an hour of play, you may actually be able to complete the whole game. What's more, the second or third time you play, you may well be able to run through it in less than ten minutes! This is particularly the case because, if you die on lands two, three or four, you also return only to the beginning of that land. In Barbarian II, this feature (which would be welcome in some much tougher games) only makes everything all the more unchallenging.
In summary then, Barbarian II is all over the place. It's far too frustrating for some players, far too easy for others. A welcome change from the first adventure for some, a ridiculous dumbing-down of the fighty original for others. The reviews which it gained on release perfectly reflected this, with A&B Computing finding everything about it to be poor, whilst other magazines found it handsome and playable whilst acknowledging its serious flaws. Fortunately for Superior/Acornsoft, there were so few 'full price' games being released in the run-up to Christmas 1989 that, despite all of the above, Barbarian II did actually end up being surprisingly successful. Nowadays it's seen quite regularly on eBay, and fetches surprisingly high prices. Expect to pay north of £15 for a cassette in good condition with the outer and inner inlay included.