Sword Of Sodan - In-depth Written Amiga Review With Pics
I can still feel the pocket of loose quarters as my hand blindly reaches in, feeling up arcade's iconic currency. I can hear the coins insertion, falling to a hidden bin to await future collection. The heart begins to pound as you fumble around, a timer ticks itself down. Relief comes in a sigh as you push in that red button, registering to the machine your desire to press onward. How far will this continue take you?
'Twas an all too common experience for those of us venturing to our local arcade. Sometimes I was so confident in the need for a continue I'd stack a few sets of quarters on the machine for quick access. Certainly I had forfeited enough games in my lifetime due to the stumbling of hands reaching through the pants pocket void. It was an inevitability that you'd do best to prepare for prior to starting the game. After all, arcade games were largely designed to suck in your quarters, insane difficulty could sometimes be putting it mildly.
But we wanted to press forward, we wanted to see where the game would end up taking us. The arcades were a struggle we wouldn't trade-in for anything. Home, on the other hand, was its own wonderful and unique experience, or at least it should have been. All too often arcade games ported to home systems, and for that matter original console or computer games which were given an arcade style would retain those money sucking elements, despite the fact they had just taken fifty dollars worth of your quarters. Sword of Sodan was a welcomed relief from this practice.
^Starting the game, picking your character, jumping over barrels.
Sword of Sodan was not an arcade port, in fact it was an Amiga original, though it certainly had an arcade feel. A side scrolling beat 'em up with a sword, your task is a simple one; Move from left to right, avoid obstacles, and destroy all that stand in your way. While perhaps a simple task, I wouldn't let my previous comments regarding the difficulty of arcade games fool you. It's not an easy game, but it is attainable. A challenge is something we should all be striving for, or else where's the reward for playing? It's in how the challenge is presented to you that sets Sword of Sodan as an example others would have done well to follow.
We are not bombarded with row upon row of easily dispatched enemies, who's challenge lies not in their moves, but in their endless respawning nature. Some levels in Sword of Sodan feature only a single enemy, while most have around a handful, along with an occasional boss. One swing of your sword will not subdue them, every enemy will require multiple hits, and each have their own unique movement and attack tendencies. The challenge arises from figuring out the best ways to attack individual enemies. But you'll never fully figure them out to the point you'll take no damage upon mastering the game.
^A bit of story, castle gates to city streets, a boss
In the arcades, once you had coughed up your dues worth and beaten the game, you could sometimes hence forth run straight through on a single quarter. Not what I personally strive for at home. While I beat Sword of Sodan multiple times, I often accomplished this on my final life, or with but one extra. You might figure out an enemies pattern, but random barrels might get tossed in your way, messing with your timing. A continued challenge it offers, but even when first encountering it you won't be getting slapped across the face for your crime of simply playing a game you've never played before.
You start off with five lives and no continues, but with quite the generous health bar. While there will be no opportunities to replenish your health, there are a few extra lives you'll be able to collect. Likewise there are select potions bottles you'll pick up which will grant special abilities. One will inflict great damage on the nearest enemy, often instantly killing weaker foes, and leaving bosses limping on their final leg. Another puts a shield around you for a limited but generous amount of time, leaving you invulnerable to all but a few enemies and obstacles. Shocked by the size of the giant on level three? I activated a shield to afford myself the time to beat him on our first encounter. I approached any hesitations I had with new enemies the same way. The shield giving me the time needed in order to learn not through the typical dying and retrying methods from similar games, but through observation and experimenting afforded to me during this breather.
^Past the forest and through the graveyard, lies a castle
I didn't receive my first game over until the fourth level. On subsequent plays I always felt like I was getting a healthy amount further, and yet I never was able to simply ride straight through. Properly balancing difficulty is rarely done to this level. The only time I felt unfairly treated was in the final boss battle and during one platforming session. Much how balancing difficulty is not the easiest of tasks, neither is properly mixing different genres into one. One section of the game has you jumping to moving platforms over lava, and dealing with the controls in this area are likely to cause frustration. Still, even when coming to this area for the first time and losing several lives, I managed to cross the span after receiving only one game over.
The area with the lava is part of the longest level in the game, one in which is extremely atmospheric in nature. The scrolling in Sword of Sodan feels quite unique in its movement. How fast it scrolls is in combination with how fast you're moving, but with a limit that keeps things moving in an almost spooky fashion. In this particular level bolts of fire charge forth at random intervals necessitating quick reflexes to jump over them. Columns of stone come falling from the ceiling in an attempt to crush, along with spikes from the ground seeking to impale. Upon crossing the lava droplets of acid rain fall down upon you. Combined with the scrolling and random nature of these events, a genuine fear of the unexpected lingered inside me.
Graphically Sword of Sodan is a stunner. While styled after the arcades, it certainly went to a place that few arcade games could hope to replicate. Practically all entities in this game stand at over half the size of the screen vertically, something the arcades would rarely see at the time, and then usually in single screen fighting games. Parallax scrolling is featured not just in the background, but the foreground as well. While this particular element will cause moments of frustration when your vision is obscured, it undoubtedly adds to the games atmosphere, as well as your own fear when slowly walking forward.
We start our adventure in the middle of the day, to then witness the sun setting in the city streets via a fantastic Amiga copper effect. In the forest a dark blue signifies the start of the night, while in the graveyard lightning strikes. I always have to give mad props to any games from that era which changed things up to this degree. It seemed so rare to see things like day and night cycles along with weather effects. Things which never felt like they should be too hard to accomplish, as even some eight bit games managed this feat, yet you occasionally don't even receive these features in modern games! It adds so much to Sword of Sodan's atmosphere when during the final boss fight you can see, and you can hear, the lightning in the background.
^The wizard's tower
Sound was an especially neglected feature in many games from this time period, but here it's top notch. The effects act almost as their own musical soundtrack. Birds chirp as the start, digitized voices of guards warn you, the stranger, to stop. Enemies groan, the footsteps from an animal friend pound, and the lava burns so harshly. While the final boss battle proved quite frustrating for me, the scream the evil wizard let out upon his demise made it all worth it. Musically speaking there are two main tracks, one to start the game and one upon receiving a game over. Both of which will have your head bobbing, prime examples of the realistic rock sound the Amiga could achieve. There are also a few minor quick tunes that play in the levels, but these seem meant to accompany the sound effects rather than draw attention to themselves.
Sword of Sodan was released at the end of 1988 for the Amiga in the American market, and in early 1989 in Europe. While the game was advertised to be coming out for multiple systems, including DOS and the Apple II GS, neither of these would see the light of day at the time. Discovery Software fired the outside developer working on these ports, and would themselves file for bankruptcy in 1990. A Sega Genesis version would be developed by Innerprise and published by Electronic Arts in 1990, although in quite a different form. A comparison between the Genesis and Amiga versions can be found at this point in my video review. In 1993 a more faithful version would come out for the Apple Macintosh, and in recent years the unfinished GS version has also surfaced. The original version is certainly a testament to the Amiga's capabilities. ^Hero and heroine come together
Storywise every level of the game features a short poem describing what you're about to face in a roundabout way. The manual goes surprisingly deep into the backstory for a game of this type. Zoras, a necromancer, killed the king and his twin children set out to take the kingdom back. While it's nothing we haven't heard before or since, the manual tells this story wonderfully with multiple pages of depth. There's even a detailed map of the entire kingdom, only the smallest of which has any relevance to the game you will be playing. Somewhat trend setting for the time would be your ability to choose the sex of your player character, both of which function exactly the same. Interestingly, it's a bit odd to take in the games ending cut scene, in which the two main characters get awfully close to each other, as the manual says they're brother and sister. The manuals story, I would imagine, was separately put together, and perhaps the original idea was to have these characters get together.
Reviews of the time period were largely favorable while noting minor issues, along with a couple harsher reviews which felt the game was bad to awful. The American magazine Amiga World named it the fourth best game of 1989, while the British magazine Commodore Computing named it the arcade game of the year. I found it on a list of top selling Amiga games from Computer and Video Games magazine, as well as a readers choice list from Computer Gaming World, at twenty-three of one hundred. The author claims units sold were around 55,000 which would have been a respectable number for a computer title on a single platform at the time.
For an arcade styled game from the late 1980's, my time spent with it was delightful. It challenged yet was not overly harsh. The graphics truly take advantage of the Amiga, with added props for the contrasting times of day and weather effects. The sound, likewise, did its fair share to immerse me in atmosphere. While moments of anger arose, I felt quite satisfied upon completion. This is how you do an arcade styled game right on a home system.
I hope you'll check out my video review, where I'll read from the games manual as well as from several magazine reviews from back in the day. I'll compare the Amiga and Genesis versions, and give you some personal memories from when I was a kid playing. Readers of this article may also enjoy my written reviews for Arkanoid, Maruader II (both from Discovery), or TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist (beat 'em up).