Q-Bits From my Personal Collection – Swashbuckler, one-on-one fighting on the home computer

Welcome to another Quick Bits article. While working on a more general article on Datamost I thought I’d touch upon some of the games published by the company in the early ’80s. While Paul Stephensons’ impressive 1981 title Swashbuckler would go on to influence one of the most important games in the fighting genre, the game and its author quickly fell into obscurity. Today, nearly no information on either Swashbuckler or Stephenson seems to exist.

In 1984 Jordan Mechner’s Karateka would herald the one-on-one fighting genre into the mainstream. Mechner had spent over two years creating and perfecting his masterpiece and parts of his inspiration had come from a unique and impressive but mostly forgotten Apple II game released three years earlier. Motivated by pop culture and what the available technology could muster, space shooters had been the dominant genre ever since the first mass-market home computers had been introduced back in 1977. Without dedicated hardware for handling 2D images, sprites, black backgrounds, and simple aliens, typically only a few pixels wide and with little or no animation at all had become the de facto graphic standard for nearly every game. On the contrary, a one-on-one fighting game would require large images clearly depicting the stance and movement of the player and the enemies. Attacking, defending, or simply moving around had to look realistic and be fluent to make it a playable and enjoyable experience, this not only required technical prowess but also serious animation skills.

The earliest one-on-one fighting games were to be found in the arcade. Here video game coin-op machines with purpose-built hardware were slowly exposing the new genre to the world. Sega‘s black-and-white boxing game Heavyweight Champ, the first video game to feature fist fighting, was released in 1976. Three years later, in 1979, American arcade manufacturer Vectorbeam created Warrior, the first sword-fighting game. The following summer, the rapidly growing video home console market got its first one-on-one fighting game with Activision‘s Boxing for the Atari VCS.

By the earliest ’80s, the home computer scene was dominated by fast-paced action games. Nasir Gebelli‘s seemingly impossible creations climbed to the top of nearly every list along with multitudes of copies of popular arcade games. There was far and wide between entirely new concepts but in 1981 programmer and graphics genius Paul Stephenson started work on Swashbuckler, a one-player pirate action game and a title that would become one of the first, if not the first true one-on-one fighting games for home computers. Using the Apple II’s Hi-Res mode Stephenson created an atmospheric and impressive full-screen pirate ship setting with large detailed and realistic animated characters.

As the player, you would need to fight your way up through the ship with hordes of swashbuckling buccaneers constantly attacking you. As you progressed through the game, the setting would change. Starting out two levels below deck, in the depths of the cargo hold, moving up to the loud and hectic cannon deck, before reaching sunlight and the salty sea air on the upper decks. Littered through the ship were the remains of lesser lucky swashbucklers now nothing more than piles of bones.
Stephenson used the Apple II’s standard draw routines and shape tables for the graphics, like with nearly all Apple II games of the era this resulted in flickering every time the computer had to update the screen by erasing and redrawing all moving elements, nonetheless, the bold animated graphics was some of the best on any home computer at the time.
When the game neared completion, Stephenson came to an agreement with one of the most experienced people in the home computer publishing business.

American entrepreneur Dave Gordon had just parted ways with the Hayden Book Company which had purchased his company Programma International, one of the very first publishers of personal computer software and at the time the biggest distributor of Apple II software in the world. While enthusiastic about the acquisition and the new possibilities, Gordon clashed with the Hayden executives and was fired in the spring of 1981. With the intent of continuing to publish technical books, games, and software for the 8-bit machines of the era he established Datamost, Inc. out of Chatsworth, California. One of the first games released by his new company was Stephenson’s Swashbuckler, published in late 1981 or early 1982 for the Apple II.

Paul Stephenson’s first game, Swashbuckler was picked up by Dave Gordon’s newly established Datamost and published for the Apple II in 1981-82.
The Apple II version became the only release of the game as no ports to other systems were made

Swashbuckler was a technical and visual marvel of its time and definitely a game you would show off to your friends.
The gameplay was surprisingly fast but quickly became tiresome from the lack of variety.
Controlling your swashbuckler required two hands on the keyboard, one for moving and turning and one for the different attacks and defenses. Enemies and the setting would change as the game progressed.

The unique concept of Swashbuckler was a good change of pace for everyone tired of shooting endless rows of attacking aliens. Computer Gaming World received it positively in the spring of 1982, praising it for its stunning and realistic animated graphics and unique gameplay but remarked it lacked variety. Swashbuckler sold well for its time and was often, by Datamost, referred to as a best-seller. Like most Apple II games, it became widely pirated.
Stephenson went on to create the more well-known and critically acclaimed Aztec in 1982, using features from Swashbuckler with added adventure game elements, greatly inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Sources: Wikipedia, Computer Gaming World, Creative Computing

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