Swords and Serpents
Nintendo Entertainment System
Genre: Dungeon Crawl RPG
Video games are a lot like every other form of media. There are different tastes and a wide variety of games to sate those tastes. Not everyone is going to like the same thing, and when people expand outside of their usual fare, it can sometimes go sideways. Looking at Swords and Serpents, a game I used to have when I was younger, felt a lot like trying pistachio ice cream when I’ve been eating strawberry for a long time. In trying to look at it objectively, I can definitely pick out some good parts, but overall, I don’t think I see the game the same way fans of the genre do so it may be worthwhile to start with the disclaimer to take this review with a grain of salt.
The game picks up a plot from out of nowhere, but it’s incredibly familiar. A group of adventurers gather on the top floor of a dungeon to delve into its depths and defeat a treacherous serpent. To do this, the adventurers must gather the seven ruby treasures within the dungeon’s sixteen floors. Only then, can they confront the serpent and put an end to its evil reign.
That’s about all you’ll get for plot out of the game, at least. The manual goes into more detail, explaining the characters of the pre-made story and their motivations. They aren’t expounded on in the game in any way, so you’re not missing much. The manual, however, does explain just about everything I wish I had been privy to before starting the game including information on stats, grids to make your own maps on, and various other informational bits that are not at all explained in the game proper.
At the beginning of the game, the player can either use a pre-fabricated party of four or create their own. Using the classes of Warrior, Thief, and Magician- which covers healing and offensive magic- a party can be composed of whatever you like. The Warrior has high damage capabilities and can equip the best weapons in the game, the Thief has a special ability that will occasionally outright kill an enemy, and the Magician, being of the utmost importance to a party, is the only way to heal in the dungeons depths and supply all of the abilities you’ll need to navigate the deeper levels. In fact, don’t even think about going into the game without at least one Magician, as you physically cannot get through the game without one.
Once stats have been ‘rolled’ and characters have been situated, you are dropped into the first level of the game. As you travel along, your characters will need to buy weapons and armor, explore each level thoroughly to find clues on how to progress and find spells for your Magician(s), and generally survive an onslaught of ever intensifying fantasy beings. There are various ways to go about the floors, including teleporters and ‘zoom tubes’, which will bring you as far back to the first floor from the tenth, should you choose it. Admittedly, a lot of my own problem was feeling like the ‘answers’ to finding the way through some of the lower levels would have been near impossible without help or a walkthrough of some sort.
Before I dig into what I didn’t enjoy from this game, there are some good and interesting points to be had. For instance, the game can be played by one, two, or four people with the party being equally split accordingly. This means that of the entire library of NES games available, this was one of the twenty or so that could make use of the four controller adapters that were produced. As there has to be a ‘party leader’ assigned for movement, one assumes this means that the players can control their own inventory and actions in combat. While there is probably more appeal in the actual companionship of playing as a group rather than the potential to push buttons every few minutes, but the novelty does place Swords into a special section of Nintendo history.
The game also has a way of being somewhat forgiving compared to others of its kind from the time. Running away from battle is guaranteed to have your characters escape, though they might take a hit or two on the way out. Your party levels up as a whole, as well, so if a character happens to die and miss a couple of battles, they won’t fall behind as a result. Considering how hard some of the battles can become, these are both welcome features. The front end of the game is also nicely informative, giving the player character status, a map, and the graphics of the dungeon being navigated.
The interface of the game, at this point, is the low-light, as it has not aged well. Rather than a save feature, for instance, the game has a password function. You get one password for each character and one for the game’s progress, making a total of five passwords to enter should you want to continue where you left off. This isn’t precise, however, as it will start you at the nearest temple (on the first, fifth, or tenth floor) and at the same level but with none of the accrued experience points. Of other note, as to be expected, menus are somewhat clunky, particularly in the intricacies of buying and selling from the armory, but they are mildly easier to navigate within the dungeon and trading items between characters, so there is that.
The graphics and sounds are, for the most part, pretty bland. Walking through dungeon floors consists of making your way surrounded by brick walls. Each floor has a different color of brick, but it’s all the same brick. The creatures you battle, from spiders to spectres and barbarians to wizards, are all visually nice to look at and, as a bonus, they are all animated. Sadly, the bestiary contains about seven unique enemy outlines with various color palette swaps. Even the ‘hermit’ who arrives in some instances to help you is the same old man but different colored- sometimes in jarring color combinations.
Music, however, is the low point of this game. It is incredibly repetitive, and it doesn’t always fit the game’s aesthetic, breaking into jazzy riffs that would have been better off in a more modern game. The battle melody remains the same throughout the entire game, even during the mandatory battles and the final confrontation. Sound effects tend to clip short or get garbled, as well, which tended to happen in some Nintendo games. The game is not friendly to the ears in the long run.
Really, Swords and Serpents probably scratched an itch for the right people. If you grew up on Wizardry and other games of the like, this game falls right in your wheelhouse, so other reviews would have me believe. While I’m no stranger to dungeon-crawlers, my perspective and tastes might veer differently than this game could endear itself to. I’d certainly warn, though, if you’re looking for anything with the trappings of modern gaming and you didn’t grow up in the annals of aged Dungeons & Dragons or Ultima games, you may want to look elsewhere to ease any burning you have to play out a dungeon dive.