Taito’s 1987 hacky-slashy coin-op classic, Rastan Saga, was ported to all the usual 8-bit suspects, though only a demo ever appeared for the 16-bit home micros courtesy of Ocean, and that was for the stinky Atari ST so hardly counts.
While Arnie Schwarzenegger’s $100m grossing almost-blockbuster, Conan the Barbarian, had been around since 1982, kids were still clamouring for bronzed, ripply-muscled freedom fighters in loin clothes. With a gaming void to fill, naturally a number of similarly themed titles emerged for the Amiga, one of which was Torvak the Warrior; an action platformer developed by Core Design and unleashed in 1990.
With narrative swiped straight out of Conan and aesthetics and mechanics heavily inspired by Rastan and Victor Interactive’s Legendary Axe, it had the brazen gumption to set the dark ages ablaze. Well, did it? Lay down your warhammer for a moment weary dragon vanquisher, pour yourself a hornful of mead, and join me around the campfire to find out.
The lightbulb pinging similarities to Rastan are most apparent in the mountainous regions where our hero strolls behind waterfalls or drops down between openings in the ground to reach the subterranean catacombs. Though of course the whole package is a blatant parody/homage to Taito’s arcade axe battler.
Unusual for the time, Torvak was only released for the Amiga and Atari ST, a joint effort by Andrew Green (coding), Lee Pullen and Terry Lloyd (graphics) and Matt Furniss (music and sound effects). It features a number of diversely themed levels and stages (that few of the reviewing fraternity at the time could agree on) which become progressively more challenging as you delve deeper into the game. The manual and my peepers say there are five main levels so let’s run with that. To count any higher I’d have to find my other hand beneath this marmot cloak. Almera is still a bit nippy this time of year.
As for plotification (don’t you dare underline my perfectly acceptable words in red), Torvak is Conan Lite. You’ve returned home from a five year exile fighting in the Tormanian wars to find your once tranquil homeland has been ravished by a loathsome necromancer and his legion of gruesome stooges. Oh it gets worse. Much worse. Rather than challenging the inhabitants to a congenial horseshoe throwing contest, the uncouth savages slaughtered your family and friends in cold blood, no doubt using their bones as toothpicks.
The village Elder – who presumably hid in a cupboard until the commotion had settled down – pops up to inform you that the necromancer has cast a dark shadow across the land, and needs to be dealt with in order to restore peace, love and understanding. What’s so funny?
Anyhow, you being rather fond of your former kith and kin, this has really ruffled your feathers and so you set off to the necromancer’s castle to give him – or it – a piece of your mind.
Possibly some bloodshed will ensue, we’re not sure at this stage. What we do know is that the path to vengeance won’t be a cakewalk, or a walk in the park, or anything else that conveys a sense of ease, because the wicked sorcerer has other plans.
En route you’ll pass through your village home (or what’s left of it), volcanic mountains, dingy caverns, a tropical jungle oozing with sinking-bog gloop, and finally the eerie castle abode of your arch nemesis.
Each level delivers theme appropriate scenery, a boss battle and a menagerie of demented critters to tangle with. Amongst the respawning roll call are soldiers, orcs, trolls, archers, poisonous caterpillars, armour-clad ratmen, mace-wielding gimps, Evil Dead grabby earth hands, rockmen (also found in Legendary Axe, though a very different sprite), zombies, winged dragon bats, slithering lizards straight from the primordial soup, spiders, porcupines, one-eyed piranhas, scorpions, cavemen, trilobites, and Swamp Thing bogeymen. They’re not the brightest bulbs on the tree, and so tend to harass you with fairly linear, predictable attack patterns. Not something to lose any sleep over.
Even so, that’s a heck of a bulging ensemble cast – fortunate then that you’re tooled up and chomping at the bit to slice them into bite sized pizza topping. You’ll deploy up to four iron age weapons throughout your death wish revenge quest, each endowed with idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses.
You begin with the double-headed axe with its limited hit range, upgrade to the medium range broadsword, which can be used for skewering creepy-crawlies, the powerful yet slow, short ranged warhammer, and finally onto the morning star ball and chain. The latter being the most potent, far reaching weapon available. You’re able to switch between them at will using the 1-4 keys once acquired, and will have to learn which is most appropriate for each situation and opponent.
Special power-ups can be released by cracking open stone statues (mini idols in Legendary Axe), gravestones, and aliens of all things. The goodies on offer include silver and gold armour to allow you to absorb more hits before kicking the bucket, point-boosting treasure, energy orbs and food to replenish your generously long health bar, and potions (a health power up in Rastan) to supe up your arsenal.
It’s interesting to note that the HUD is exceedingly diminutive for a middle of the road Amiga game. Subtle, tucked neatly away at the top of the screen, and comprising a very similar configuration to that of Legendary Axe, itself a not so innovative Rastan clone.
With the benefit of potion-power you are now able to hold down your fire button to unlock your current weapon’s full potential, hurling ethereal beam projectiles of various kinds across the screen to wipe out enemies from a safe distance. Some can also be aimed at the ground to unleash deadly reverberations that will decimate anything on screen.
The most significant complaint levelled at Torvak concerns the sludgy, insensitive controls which require you to think ahead several seconds at a time. There’s no such thing as an instant hit, unless you’re the one on the receiving end. It’s really not the end of the world, it just means you have to approach the challenge in a different manner to something like Golden Axe.
It pays to strike when the distance between yourself and an enemy is just right, and then leap out of harm’s way before the blow is returned, before going in for the kill once more. Jumping is the only way to gain the ground needed to mount another attack; your ‘run’ is too much of a dawdle to be of much use. Look upon it as a positive in that it adds an element of strategy that is rarely found in scrolling beat ’em ups.
Torvak isn’t the most accomplished swimmer either, yet can paddle as long as his head isn’t entirely immersed. Nonetheless, what he lacks in aqua prowess, he more than makes up for with his ability to magically walk through seemingly solid rock to unveil hidden areas.
The slower Atari ST version is largely the same as the Amiga, though does allow you to enable simultaneous music and sound effects, where the Amiga’s audio must be toggled between an inappropriately chirpy arcade soundtrack and sound effects using the M key. While it’s always possible my ears need re-tuning, this isn’t selling the notion that our protagonist has only moments ago buried his entire family, and is wracked with guilt, haunted by the turbulent, vengeful emotions of a broken barbarian.
According to early previews, Torvak was to feature parallax scrolling, larger sprites and richer background graphics, though these were canned due to memory restrictions. Instead what we have is the ability to walk alternately in front of and behind environmental flora and fauna to give the illusion of depth. It works well too – the effect is particularly impressive in the scene in which you walk through the ribcage remains of an enormous unidentified mammal. Despite the cutbacks, the star of the show is brought to life via 30 frames of animation, so certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard either.
Shambling through ominous, looming scenery is a bit of a recurring theme in fact – several levels terminate with you entering the gaping mouth of an oversized, static vampiress, dragon, monkey and so on. Maybe what our parents used to tell us about the dangers of pulling faces was all true! Unless you can think of a better explanation for doorways being fashioned in the guise of catatonic fantasy figures from another world.
Each level ends with a guardian skirmish accompanied by uptempo ‘this is the critical bit so concentrate’ music. A pretty feeble stag that kicks out its back legs like a donkey represents the first in the lineup. Later you’ll encounter a gryphon, insectoid, dragon, and skull-circling serpent that when destroyed, disintegrates, ultimately making way for a pink cloaked demon, otherwise known as the necromancer himself.
Concluding proceedings is an animation depicting his crumbling castle as Torvak raises his clenched fists to the sky in defiance, though probably not exactly jubilation as his family and friends are still as dead as ever.
“Well done, you got a high score”, and with that, the game resets ad infinitum, or until you hit the power button, which is far more likely seeing as you probably wouldn’t want to spend another two hours completing it a second time in the same sitting.
Magazine review scores fluctuated wildly; committed to print was everything from 11% from Amiga Power’s Stuart Campbell to 87% from Zero, as assessed by David McCandless. Taking a global snapshot, Torvak averaged 65.81% across a total of 16 reviews according to Hall of Light statistics, which I think is an entirely accurate reflection.
While it’s not the prettiest, most acoustically pleasing or fun to play game in the universe, it certainly isn’t 11% awful! In fact it’s 100% better than the Amiga port of Rastan. True, mostly because one was never released purveyors of pedantry may argue. Well whatever, let’s not split furs. Beggars can’t be choosers. I doubt very much if we’d be firing on all cylinders if our entire Facebook friends list had been annihilated by a precocious incubus upstart dressed in his wife’s best nightie!