The Bard’s Tale


Review by · October 31, 2000

I would like to dedicate this review to a group of people who I deeply appreciate and perhaps even respect. These fine citizens put aside countless hours of their lives that would have been wasted in front of a T.V. down in basements, locked in bedrooms, or over at friends’ houses to keep a tradition alive. Personal lives are meaningless to these intelligent members of our society, and that includes ignoring the call of the wild and most forms of personal hygiene. If you haven’t yet guessed, I am speaking of the pen-and-paper RPG junkie! I myself have only done a little dabbling in this area as a novice Dungeon Master, but I congratulate all of you who continue to keep true to the original RPGs.

Over the years, many systems have attempted to create an electronic version of such classics as Dungeons & Dragons, and while many of these have been very enjoyable, none of them can equal the pure imagination found in their archaic forefathers. One of the earlier pioneer games of this type was The Bard’s Tale, and although it stunk up the NES, it still helped blaze the trail for today’s AD&D adventures. Here’s my review.

(Insert music from “The Hobbit”) Come gather round, readers. I’ll type ye a tale, of a tired old bard who once fought for his life. It takes place in a city of ice, snow, and hail, filled with monsters and demons and hardships and strife, in the city of old Skara Brae…

Long ago, the wise king Aildrek ruled this land. He was kind and led the people to glory during his prosperous reign. Sadly, he passed on one day, and chaos overtook the kingdom. Without the stability provided by the monarch, anarchists ran rampant throughout the city, but the worst was yet to come. A cruel and powerful character known as Mangar appeared, bringing a plague of frigid weather onto the land and unleashing foul creatures into the streets. The dead rose to fight in his wicked army, and the living hid in fear as Mangar reigned with an iron fist from his maniacal tower. Angry citizens, tired of waiting for an inevitable death of freezing and starvation, tired of sitting around in bars and drinking their problems away with grape juice and root beer (Nintendo has loosened up its editing restrictions on games since this time), began to gather in the local guildhall. There is no greater threat to tyranny than an angry mob, and perhaps, through determination and skill, or perhaps through sheer luck, one of these groups will manage to storm the cruel one’s home and free the land. Only time will tell.

Gameplay in The Bard’s Tale is extremely old school. You start out in the guildhall and build a party or two for you to use consisting of one to six members. Each character has randomly chosen attributes, but whatever their Primary Attribute is will be the highest. Strangely, none of your attributes seem to affect your AC, or defense. The parties can consist of Warriors (Good at physical combat), Hunters (Good at surprise attacks), Bards (Capable of singing), Rogues (Good at finding traps), Sorcerers (Capable of using specialty magic), and Wizards (Capable of using combat magic), and each character that you design can be put into any party. You should usually try to use a balanced party, but if you find an area where you might want three sorcerers, go right ahead. If you want, you could play through the entire game using just one party of your favorite characters, but playing through while switching your characters adds a whole new aspect to the game.

Once you’ve gotten your characters ready, the game becomes a very primitive dungeon crawler. You see the area around you out of the party’s eyes, and you choose what direction you go in. No matter where you go, enemies can randomly attack, and I mean anywhere. The only thing that separates the town from the rest of the game is the addition of a few stores, but I’ll get back to that later. Each area comes with a map that you see in the top right corner. This will show you the surrounding area most of the time, but your map isn’t always perfect. The entire game consists of wandering around the simple mazes in each area and surviving the enemies. It’s very simple.

The battles are turn based with the fastest characters going first. Each battle consists of your party of one to six heroes fighting one to three parties of one to nine monsters (Now reread that last sentence slowly). Each enemy party contains one type of monster, but the other parties can be different. No matter how many enemies are in an enemy party, that party only lets one enemy in it attack. As for your party, you can select three to five characters to stand in the front row. These warriors are the only ones capable of physically attacking the enemy and taking hits. It would be wise to keep all magic-using characters in the back row and all physical characters in the front.

The magic system is your usual deal with MP being used to cast spells. However, the variety of spells is very impressive for a game like this. Instead of just having offensive and healing spells, there are summons, effect magic, and a special type of magic for Bards. For every cough drop that they eat, they can sing one song for some interesting effects. This is all very nice for the NES.

One of the neatest things about the multi-party system used is the way that you can play two games at once and let them affect each other. If one group needs help getting through a particularly mean dungeon, the other could sell some advanced armor that they found from an enemy to the store, and then the other player could buy it back from the store, getting the AC boost that they needed. If you’re really cheap, you could even sell a key item you found at the bottom of a dungeon and let the other team buy it back, allowing them to completely bypass an entire area. Doing that will probably lead to you dieing, but I’m sure you knew that. The only truly annoying thing for me to point out is that the whole game is actually very short except for the vast amount of time you spend training. If you try to rush through an area without leveling up, you will die repeatedly. It was an innovative game, but it missed fun by just that much. Gameplay gets an 83%.

TBT was an ugly game. Hmmm… I guess I should expand on that. The graphics outside of battle consist of the first person view of the surroundings and the special event scenes. Whether you are wandering around the dangerous streets of Skara Brea or doing a little tomb raiding after hours, you will be shocked to learn that the entire world looks the same! Outdoors, indoors, it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same box-like walls with a few colors getting changed. Occasionally, you will stumble across something out of the ordinary like a statue or a hippo or whatever. In those cases, you will be shown a nice little portrait of whatever you see. It’s not quite fascinating, but it beats nothing.

In battle, the graphics were on par with most NES titles. All you see is the enemies up against a black screen. That’s it. The creatures had a fair amount of detail, and there was a bit of variety, but this game did something that I have never seen before. Enemies that were of the same type were palette swapped. If you were fighting three parties of Mad Dogs, you would see a pink one, a white one, and a gray one. This left me a bit unsettled, but it wasn’t bad in any way. Graphics get a 74%.

I really can’t say that much about the game’s music. Each dungeon had its own little theme song to go along with it, adding some variety to the game. None of them were incredible, but they weren’t bad either. For the most part, it was all your average RPG filler. The sounds were also unremarkable. There was a beep for making selections and a noise or two for attacks, but that’s it. I hope you didn’t have your hopes up for this, because Sound/Music gets a 70%.

Sometimes, when a game is getting a bad review, I will reach the Storyline section and smile. Even though everything else about that game was cheesy, that plot helps pull it right out of the gutter. Well, sometimes that happens. The tale told in TBT gives new meaning to the term substandard. There are many key story elements that are just missing. First of all, none of your characters have any identity. Many games can survive without this, but it’s always nice to have. Secondly, there are no other characters to interact with. You meet some shopkeepers, a heretic, a blue dragon, and a few bosses with one line. None of these characters really last for more than thirty seconds. Finally, the only reason for you to be doing all this is to beat the evil boss. I think that plot ranks just below “save the princess”. Storyline gets a 30%.

Finally, we reach the controls. The only real problem that I noticed here was that in battle, if you wipe out one party of enemies, any characters who were selected to attack it and who haven’t attacked it yet lose their turn just like in Final Fantasy 1. I’m not sure if this is a control problem really, but it is a technical problem, so why shouldn’t I include it here? Controls get a 70%.

Here we have a game that tried to market to a new audience. Many original concepts were implemented that video games were inexperienced with, and these things were done very well. However, very little work was put into the game’s essential elements, and no number of new ideas can make up for that. Overall, The Bard’s Tale gets a 63%.

Gameplay – A good week-waster. 83%
Graphics – You feel like you’re walking through Dilbert’s office. 74%
Sound/Music – I hate writer’s block. 70%
Storyline – Did they even try? 30%
Controls – You actually have to think in battle! 70%
Overall – And Tom said I’d be a horrible DM. 63%

Overall Score 63
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Andrew DeMario

Andrew DeMario

Andrew went by several names here, starting as a reader reviewer under the name Dancin' Homer. Later known as Slime until we switched to real names, Andrew officially joined RPGFan as a staff reviewer in 2001 and wrote reviews until 2009. Andrew's focus on retro RPGs and games most others were unwilling to subject themselves to were his specialty.