Simon Belmont pre-emofication.

When you hear the word “barbarian”, the first name that probably springs to mind is Conan. Whether from the comics, the popular movie, or even the cartoon show (yes, it existed), he is the archetypal barbarian hero in popular culture. And the influence of Conan is far reaching in the videogame world; Rastan, Golden Axe, and the initial appearances of the Belmonts in Castlevania, all drew on popular depictions of Conan; and the archetypal features of the character can be seen in characters like Kratos from the God of War series, as well as the barbarian classes in the Dungeons & Dragons, Diablo, and Elder Scrolls games.

But Whence Came Conan the Cimmerian, Legendary Champion of the Hyborian Age? I Mean, Other Than the Obvious Answer. You Know… Cimmeria.

Conan was born in the mind of prolific 1930s pulp writer Robert Ervin Howard. While he sold stories in a variety of genres, he was best known for his tales of adventure and fantasy. Although Howard created numerous heroes who were wandering adventurers (among them Kull the Atlantean and the Puritan swashbuckler Solomon Kane), he didn’t really strike it big among the readers of Weird Tales until he published the first Conan tale, The Phoenix on the Sword. Howard’s portrayal of Conan and the brutal age he inhabited made the stories quite popular among readers, essentially giving birth to the Sword & Sorcery or “Low Fantasy” genre. The Conan of Howard’s stories was no brainless brute, but a well-traveled, brooding outcast skilled in combat as well as thievery. To compare him to the Westerns of the time, Conan was closer to an anarchic, wandering mountain man seeking fortune and fame rather than a white-hatted hero who acted entirely out of altruism. While the original Conan stories ended with Howard’s suicide in 1936, they had found an audience, and like fellow Weird Tales author HP Lovecraft, that audience continued to grow.

Conan then found his way into other venues: Marvel published the popular Savage Sword of Conan comic books, and Frank Frazetta gained fame by painting the covers of the Conan novels. However, perhaps the most well-known adaptation is the 1982 John Milius film Conan the Barbarian, which propelled a little-known Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom. This film, for better or for worse (and I do like the film), is probably what most people think of when they imagine Conan. And for some reason, most people just remember him punching out a camel.

But I Can Hear You, Reader. Enough Prattling on History, Get to the Games!

Crom, I have never prayed to you before; I have no tongue for it. No one will remember if these were good games or bad…oh wait, yes they will.

GLORIOUS.

Conan’s first digital adventure (barring any fighters that might have had the name in early RPGs) was Conan: Hall of Volta, which was released for the computers of the era. The game was an action-platformer which featured Conan invading the fortress of the (evil sorceror?) Volta and hacking his way through some rather pedestrian enemies like scorpions and bats, and some more fantastic ones like dragons. The Apple II version had an advantage due to its use of the 2-button joystick available for the system; however, it lacked the rather complex musical score available in the other versions. Also you had an ally to help you through the stages. It was called an “Avian Ally”. And it was a duck. I’m not kidding.

A DUCK.

And then…there was Mindscape’s Conan: Mysteries of Time for the NES. Sidescrollers were big at the time. OK, Conan would make a pretty good sidescroller, right? Taito made it work pretty well with Conan with the Numbers Filed Off Rastan. Well, don’t believe for a second that Mindscape is as competent as Taito. The NES Conan is best described as a half-assed Prince of Persia clone. No, that’s giving it too much credit. This was a quarter-assed Prince of Persia clone. At least when it wasn’t being a Rush’N Attack clone where you run to the right stabbing things. In any case…this is one of those games where you press  UP on the command cross to jump instead of tapping A or B. That should tell you all you need to know.

Even though Conan is kicking that skeleton in the groin, the skeleton has more dignity than the game he’s in.

Mindscape Must Ponder Their Sins on the Tree of Woe

So it’s with disappointment that most of the 1990s passed noticeably free of Conan. It wasn’t until 2004 that he appeared again…in some game published by TDK that I don’t know much about. However, in 2007, THQ put out a game simply titled Conan for the PS3 and Xbox 360 . A hack-and-slash actioner in the vein of God of War, Conan did a lot of things right (as recursive as that is). It featured a great combat system, excellent music, and featured the voices of Ron Perlman (Hellboy!) and Claudia Black (rowr). On the other hand…there were some issues. The characters look good in combat. But in the cutscenes…ugh, they just don’t look good close-up. Maybe I’m spoiled by stuff like Witcher 2 and Mass Effect 2 where close-ups on character’s faces look identifiably human, but the faces tend to cross into the uncanny valley. As well, there’s a bit of platforming that just doesn’t gel like it should. Luckily, there isn’t much of it. But overall, I like this game. The fights are brutal, and the fact that you chuck barrels and push over columns really gives you a sense of Conan’s strength. Most of the boss fights – including a dragon, a giant squid, and a big dude with a club – are also very cool and satisfying. The game has good atmosphere too, with  tense and gory battles, evil to conquer, and damsels to free. The final boss is an ill-advised exercise in cheap hits and tedium, but hey, if you see Conan for the PS3 or 360 and it’s cheap, I advise you to check it out. It doesn’t suck.

It’s far from perfect, but it isn’t a bad game.

And then there’s the MMO, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Now I haven’t played this one, but it’s quite popular and I’ve heard that it’s pretty fun. And since it’s free to play, I’ve decided to give it a shot. Not kidding, it’s actually downloading at the moment.

Crom smiles on Rastan.

So instead, I’m going to talk about the best Conan game ever: of course, it isn’t actually a Conan game. It’s Taito’s Rastan, as mentioned earlier. It’s pretty much what a sidescrolling Conan game should have been. The game shamelessly rips off the 1982 film. And honestly? It pulls off the Sword and Sorcery hack-em-up style perfectly. It’s just you alone as a barbarian hero fighting through monsters in excellent-looking environments while listening to killer tunes. It’s one of my favorite arcade games ever, and if you can pick up one of the Taito collections or find an old arcade machine…get it. This is, in spite of the name, the definitive Conan experience.

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Comments
  1. Splendid piece!

    (And I must say, I was a major fan of the Conan the Adventurer cartoon series. It had the best theme tune in history: “Conan! The mightiest warrior EVER!”)

  2. Asad says:

    There is also a Conan RPG on dos and the 2004 game while not so popular had some really cool fighting.

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