Who's that now? Conan? There is a Conan game for the NES? Yeah, that's what I said. The only vague memory that I have of this game existing was that I think I spotted a copy once at a flea market years ago and said to myself "oh boy, a Conan game from Mindscape, I bet that's a winner." And I passed on picking it up. Who knew that not only was it fairly rare, but it was also one of the NES's hardest games?
I soon found out why it has earned both distinctions. Conan is a very hard game with a single absolutely tragic flaw that honestly keeps it from being one of the lost gems for the system. You see Conan is hard for all of the tradition reasons: level design, enemy placement, tricky puzzles, etc., but it finds its way this far up the list mainly because of its absolutely flawed control scheme. That is probably why it wasn't more poplar and well known, and that is where we will start...
For all intents and purposes, Conan is a fairly straightforward platforming adventure game with puzzle elements. You rove from level to level seeking special weapons to do battle with mythical monsters and foes. Simple right? Should only require a very basic control scheme right? WRONG. For whatever reason, the geniuses at Mindscape decided that Conan would be oh so much better if you had to press DOWN to jump (you can also jump straight up by pressing UP, but DOWN is the only way to jump forward). They also decided that in order to pick up a new item you must crouch, and crouching is accomplished by a combination of pressing DOWN and B. There is no way that might cause a problem. There is no way that when you want to pick up that energy crystal you might accidentally jump into the pit of lava instead. There is no way. Except, you know, that is exactly what happens. I would wager that 95% of all deaths in this game result from this bizarre and broken control scheme. I would go so far as to say that 75% of this game's difficulty comes from this absurd control scheme. And unlike a good old fashioned learning curve, this is not something you can ever get used to. I don't care how much you play Conan, it is NEVER intuitive to press down to jump and it is never easy to execute the crouch to pick up a weapon. Oh sure, you can get the hang of it, you can adapt, but you cannot master. I defy you. It is just too stupid. I'll go ahead and tell you now, Conan is #19 on this list because it has very crappy controls and they make the game WAY more difficult than it needs to be.
Apart from the ridiculous controls, Conan is pretty much a trial and error game. Each level must be solved by finding the right item to advance to the next part of the level. Case in point, in level 1 you must kill a skeleton and take his sword, use the sword to cut free the cadaver hanging from the ceiling which will summon the devil, kill the goblin to obtain the fireball, use the fireball to kill the devil, obtain the trident from the devil, use the trident to kill the Manticore, then exit the level. The game is brutally linear and logical in this way. You must do A before you can do B, and so on. All of the levels are like this, and most of the levels are extremely short. You spend the majority of your time just figuring out what to do with what. Guaranteed if you pick something up in a level it directly ties to what you need to do next to progress. Level 3 is very much like that. You get a shield at the end of level 2, you need the shield to block the Gorgon's gaze, slay the Gorgon and you get its head with which you can kill the hydra at the end of the level.
Linear progression and annoying controls aside, the game is actually very interesting and visually impressive. The short levels mean you spend your time solving puzzles not whacking enemies and once solved you can complete almost every level in just a couple of minutes. The big kicker is at the end of the final level. To win the game you must place items in the correct sequence or you are instantly killed, GAME OVER. Obviously this is frustrating and annoying, and will require several trips to finally trial and error your way to victory, but it can be done.
I honestly think Conan is a pretty good game, and can be lots of fun. Yet, as I said before, Conan shows up here mainly because of its asinine controls, and also because of its devious puzzles and level design. Be prepared to die a lot, both legitimately and because you jumped when you wanted to pick up a torch...sigh...
|Lewis Morris, nobody's fool.|