For some games it can be hard to tell whether it's a blatant rip of a franchise or other Intellectual Property, a parody of the source material or if it's a genuine attempt to reproduce the source in an alternative form of entertainment. Beyond that, it is done for money, for the challenge or simply to advertise themselves and their talents.
It's almost always for the money, a company that sets up to not make money, isn't a company. It's a charity.
Barbarian, on the C64, is harder to categorise as to whether it's a blatant rip or an actual genuine attempt to honour the Conan films. It's certainly not what one would call or describe as a parody of the films. Given the lack of plot beyond "Beat the warriors, kill the warlock, save the scantily clad cluster of pixels" the game itself is an interest blend of homage and beat-em-up.
The premise is simple enough; each warrior enters from their respective side, armed with a sword. They each get 6 life spots and lose a half per hit they receive while a timer counts down. The first one to lose all their life spots is dead and the green goblin creature drags the dead body away. Failure to kill the opponent results in a draw and rematch, back at full health, as opposed to the "one with lowest health, loses" rule we see in more cash-based franchises, especially in arcades.
Depending upon the opponent, whether in single player or vs. mode, the background changes after each battle from one to another, given the complexity of the combat, one could forgive the lack of choice in backgrounds. But the game's main focus is the combat and there's a lot of it there in the arsenal of moves the characters each have. Graphically there's no differentiation from one enemy and another save for the colour of shirt they're wearing and the specification of which level you happen to be on (Save for the Warlock but more later). Each combatant has the same moves, mirrored depending upon whether they're on the left or right side of the fight.
While on the subject of graphics, the combatants are fairly recognisable as Barbarians, while the goblin looks green enough to be a goblin, the backgrounds form enough of the artwork to be recognisable as a dungeon, throne room etc. Blood spots in the soft red shade, the snakes hiss and animate each time a wound is scored on the opponent, serving as borders to the screen and the play area.
One would be forgiven for thinking the combat would be limited if each player has a simple joystick and just one button as a control system, but borrowing heavily from International Karate, the control system works well on the C64 to provide a suitable selection of moves and abilities. Each character responds to the 8 directions of the joystick by ducking, rolling, walking, jumping up or holding a block stance to cover the body or the head from attack. Each direction used with the fire button depressed, permits the character to attack in one of 8 different ways, from kicks to leg chops, body attacks, head butts, twirling the sword and the infamous, "flying head chop".
While all this is going on, the characters are duking it out to a fairly solid rendition of the main theme music to Conan the Barbarian and reproducing faithfully with the SID chip, even taking the full length of the piece of music into account that many viewers of the films would likely miss save for the longest fight scene, the composer having really done their research on this one and it shows. Thankfully it can be switched off too to listen to the sounds of swords being twirled, flesh being chopped and laughing little goblins when they collect the corpses.
The complexity of the game permits a level of depth that one wouldn't normally associate with a game of this time. For each move there is a counter, be it ducking a high attack, blocking a mid, rolling or jumping around moves and such, for there's one move you WANT to avoid at all costs, the flying-head-chop, an easily accessible, long build up move that if it connects, decapitates your opponent and sends their bonce sailing away from their neck. Instant win, goblin collects body, kicks head off stage, next level. But thanks to the large run up time to the move, it can be easily avoided and even if barely avoided, takes half a life spot if it hits anywhere other than the critical area.
In single player, the game progresses from one opponent to another for 8 levels, each opponent getting tougher in difficulty as the player completes each one, later opponents will also attempt the flying head chop and shocking, can achieve it. If the player loses, game over, thanks for playing. However, should they progress far enough to the Warlock, the game play changes to either jumping or ducking magical attacks while trying to progress across the stage to the opponent. One hit from a magical attack spells death while just touching the Warlock, beats the game. The shift in game play and objective usually is so jarring, and without warning, too often kill the player before they realise what is going on. After beating 8 opponents in sword-combat, to suddenly play a game of fatal dodge ball, is a huge dick move on the part of the designers.
It's on the same lines as playing a game for 20 hours, you're well versed and practised in how to play the game, and you know the moves and have come to learn several combos and specials. Then in the last five minutes, you have to play a version of Tetris where the colours have to link up rather than beating lines, you learn it quickly but the final boss already has 20 specials performed on you before you do the first piece.
The game play however does suffer from the clunky movements of the walking-meat-sacks, moves take a short time to perform, while this gives an opponent a chance to dodge, also allows the pixel perfect reactions of the AI to slaughter someone before they realise what they're doing. Rolling is BEYOND annoying, the animation is jerky, movement unrealistic and it knocks the opponent down if it connects with them. Holding down the attack just after, raises into a kick move that most opponents cannot avoid, giving you a hard and fast method of beating EVERY opponent (AI at least), for another amazing flaw in AI routines and exploitation methods.
Barbarian is an interesting piece, while it might appeal to fans of the source material, the stories, the films, the comics, there isn't enough here for the average player to want to come back to it, though playing it with another player and trying to fake each other out for the decapitation moves, is worth a chuckle at least. Nowadays there's less substance within the game than one could expect from games like Street Fighter 2 and onwards, Mortal Kombat and such but there is a level of charm, lightly glistening upon the surface of the game which shines through as a mark of dedication by the programmers.