Back in the ’90’s fighting games were in full swing. Easily the most popular genre in arcades, there were countless titles ported to the Super NES, Sega Genesis, as well as other platforms. On top of this, many publishers pumped out fighters hoping to be the next Street Fighter grade success story. As such, a number of games came out for home platforms in lieu of arcade machines. One such game was WeaponLord.
PROS: Beautiful graphics. Deep fighting system. Fun.
CONS: Figuring out the game on your own isn’t intuitive.
NAMCO: Is rumored to have loosely based its Soul Edge & Soul Calibur games off of this.
WeaponLord is both one of the most difficult, and yet rewarding fighting games I’ve ever stumbled upon. I found my copy at this year’s ConnectiCon, and knew basically nothing about it going in. As we did in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s I went into this based on the label/box art. I suppose I could have used my primitive phone’s web browser, but that wouldn’t have been much fun.
Anyway, WeaponLord focuses on fighting with swords, axes, hammers, and other melee combat weapons rather than martial arts moves. The brainchild of James Goddard, and Dave Winstead, this game is a lot like Barbarian. Except with a better roster, and interesting, complex mechanics. This makes sense when you learn that the Conan mythos, and other fantasy properties were an influence in its creation. Goddard, and Winstead had come from Capcom during the heights of the Street Fighter II phenomenon. Goddard also created the character Dee Jay who first appeared in Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers.
Around this time the short-lived Xband modem was being hyped up for the Super NES, and the Sega Genesis. These two developers wanted to make a fighter that could take advantage of it, and try to get the lowest lag possible. This was a time when mainly computer games could be played one-on-one over a phone line. The concept, while not new, was very rare on consoles. The one high-profile example of the Xband was the 1v1 Deathmatch mode in the Super NES port of DOOM. Strangely the feature wasn’t even advertised in that game’s manual.
Anyway, to make their game, Goddard, and Winstead would leave Capcom, and join Visual Concepts to make WeaponLord ar reality. Were they a success? Yes, although not nearly the success of the games their former employer made were. WeaponLord is an ambitious game, and it shows. The graphics, and animation are top-notch. Remember when I said Conan was an influence? The characters, and backgrounds on display will remind you of a Boris Vallejo painting. The pixel art, and sprite work details are nothing short of spectacular. Characters are fairly large, and everything looks breathtaking.
This comes at a high price however. This stuff takes up a lot of storage capacity, and memory. So the game has a small roster. This also means that matches are considerably longer than in other games, because things move along much slower. If you’re used to playing flashy modern fighters at 60 frames per second, you’re not going to get that here. You’re not going to get the standard pace of a 16-bit era Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat port either. However, if you come into WeaponLord with an open mind, and a willingness to learn, you’ll find a deep, and entertaining experience.
As the game focuses on swords, clubs, and blades it doesn’t share a weak, medium, fierce attack setup, like many other games of the era did. Instead you have backward, and forward swings. There are three of each, and go from fast, but weak to slow, but strong. The basic moves also integrate your movement. So a crouching forward swing works completely different from a standing one, or while in the air. This may seem obvious to veterans of the genre, but it’s going to be a lot more noticeable to newcomers in this game, than some of the more popular fighting games out there.
Special moves don’t generally follow the circular, and charge motions of a lot of popular games. A number of them do, but you’ll find a lot of them if not most of them are similar to Primal Rage. You have to hold an attack button, do a motion while holding the attack button, and then release it. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you wrap your head around it, you’ll start learning how to link normal, and special moves together a bit better.
But the game also has a very good parry feature. Holding a weak swing button, and moving forward, up, and down can perform a deflection if you time it properly. This puts the opponent into a short stun, and allows you to capitalize on it with a combo. But this feature is also risk vs. reward. Because if you do it too early you’re going to get stomped, and if you do it too late you’re already getting stomped. Unfortunately because of the era this game came out in, there isn’t any real tutorial to speak of in the game. You only have whatever information the manual lists, and nothing else. But that shouldn’t stop you from picking up, and enjoying vintage fighting games like this one. Especially when you stumble upon one that is this good.
The depth continues when you discover that some moves will break weapons if you manage to land them, at just the right time, during the right frame of animation! If you manage to do this, your opponent’s attacks will actually do noticeably less damage! One thing that isn’t as deep, but is a cool Easter Egg is finding that similar conditions can actually damage your opponent’s outfit. Pieces of armor crack, hair gets cut off, textiles get torn. Seeing this stuff is pretty cool even today.
It also wouldn’t be a 90’s fighter without a finishing move, and WeaponLord has its own take on the idea. Again, this is a part of the game that reminded me a lot of Barbarian, an old Commodore 64 fighting game, that while simple, featured gory dismemberment. WeaponLord doesn’t have the over-the-top fantastical fatalities associated with Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct. Instead, it has long combo strings, that if you can pull off, results in decapitation, missing limbs, and disembowelment. These executions also play a part in the game’s story mode.
The game has three main modes. First, there’s a story mode, where you take your character through an arcade ladder, and get some lore throughout the process. It plays as you might expect, going along, getting victories, and then fighting a boss character. Beating the boss character gets you an ending, and there you go. Except that WeaponLord’s story campaign changes based on the difficulty level you’re playing on, and whether or not you kill off your opponents. If you don’t kill these characters in your initial two out of three match ups, you have to fight them again later. These conditions also change the ending you’ll get, so it gives you incentive to play it a few times. Apparently the Sega Genesis port doesn’t eschew the rematch upon killing opponents. But the storyline is still a similar experience. If you pay attention to the storyline, you’ll find that the game has two stories. The story in the story mode takes place after the tournament, while the arcade mode tells the story beforehand. Beating the story with each character gives you part of a password you can use to play the story from the boss character’s perspective.
The second mode is the bog standard arcade mode. Here it’s just a matter of clearing the arcade ladder, but without the additions of the story mode. But, if you want to get into the lore, you’ll want to play it for the prequel content. Finally, you have the Versus mode, which is the meat, and potatoes of any fighting game. If you can get some people over, you’ll have quite the fighting game night for many of the reasons outlined above. In all honesty this is one of the best fighting games on the Super NES in spite of the sluggish movement. On its face it may seem like yet another clunky, mediocre game. There were a lot of them back in the day. But stick with it, and you’ll find WeaponLord is a winner.
WeaponLord was published by Namco, and so the innovations in this game appearing in its later series like Soul Edge, and Soul Calibur won’t go unnoticed. It’s rumored that the developers of those games were inspired by Visual Concepts’ barbarian fighter, and it’s easy to see why. Many of the things these games brought to the forefront of the genre were introduced in this obscure title. Had this game not come out the same year Killer Instinct was ported to the Super NES it might have gotten more attention. As it stands, this is one of those games you should really check out if given the opportunity. It has a steep learning curve, but once you pick up some of the basics you’ll find a very entertaining fighter filled with personality. It isn’t perfect by any means. The game could stand to perform a bit faster, and it should have spelled some of the combat out better. But this should not have its identity mistaken for mediocre stuff like Street Combat.
It may be rough around the edges, but WeaponLord is awesome.
Final Score: 8 out of 10